Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dance Your Ass Off

So I saw Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's latest comedy. And man, it was good. Why he hasn't hooked up with Adam Sandler yet, I don't know. Sandler hasn't made a really funny movie since Happy Gilmore (1996) and I think Aronofsky could help change that.

Anyhow, Black Swan is definitely Aronofsky's best movie to date. I know a lot of people champion Requiem for a Dream (2000) but that movie just didn't do it for me. I already got the message that drugs were bad from those ads back in the '80s when the kid gets busted by his dad for smoking weed or hitting the crack pipe or whatever then his kid flips on his dad and says he learned it all from him.

Black Swan, though, is something different. Because I honestly had no idea dancing could fuck you up this bad. If anyone wants to be a dancer after seeing this movie, they're nuts. I'd rather not be turned into a bird, thanks. At least I think that's what's going on here. It sounds kind of ridiculous, I know, but apparently ballet does really crazy things to your body.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who's talented and dedicated but just hasn't gotten a big break yet. Her overbearing stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) used to be a dancer but it never quite panned out for her (the excuse is that she had to quit to raise Nina but it's probably really because she just wasn't good enough) and now she's just a big, bitter mess. On the one hand Erica wants to live vicariously through Nina and on the other hand she doesn't really want her daughter to become more successful than she was.

When Nina's career looks like it's going to finally jump to the next level, Erica makes subtle, likely unconscious, moves to undermine her. Like bringing a big, thickly frosted cake home to celebrate Nina winning the lead role in her ballet company's production of Swan Lake and then becoming enraged when Nina understandably says she doesn't want to eat it because she has to watch her weight - an outburst that causes Nina to quickly apologize to her offended mother and then eat the cake anyhow. For all her encouragement and advice, deep down Erica would be happier seeing Nina fail.

Besides being already bent in the head thanks to her mother, Nina has plenty of other issues to contend with. She's won the part in Swan Lake, yes, but that only seems due to the new found physical interest that her dance company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has shown in her. Also, one of her rival dancers, the outgoing Lily (Mila Kunis), looks like she out to steal the coveted part (parts, really, as Nina is intended to play both the Swan Queen and the Black Swan) - and possibly Thomas' attention - away from Nina. Given all the stress she's under, it's no wonder that Nina seems to be gradually transforming into a swan. It's a real nightmare but things could be worse. She could be turning into a duck or something.

I've got to say - it's been awhile since I've seen a movie that so successfully makes an audience squirm, cringe, and collectively suck in their breath. If you have any kind of phobia regarding the proper maintenance of fingernails, watch out for Black Swan. Man, you can show people being chainsawed in two and I won't blink an eye but seeing someone cut past their fingernails into their skin - you can find me under my seat after it's over. Aronofsky is all about wearing the audience down with tiny moments that fly under their defenses. You're never allowed to feel completely at ease in Black Swan.

You are allowed, though - even encouraged, I believe - to nervously laugh at times and what sets Black Swan apart from the joyless, oppressive likes of Requiem for a Dream or Pi (1998) is that as heavy as it is, it seems to be ok to have some fun with this film. This is a great film to see with a receptive audience if they're able to scream and laugh at the right moments.

There's nothing campy or tongue in cheek about the committed performances of the cast but yet because the underlying metaphors of the film are so ripe for ridicule, Black Swan is always walking a tightrope between the silly and the sublime. That's what makes it so exciting to watch. This is a movie that is constantly in danger of falling on its face but Aronofsky makes it work through virtuoso filmmaking. Black Swan is just absurd enough to be enjoyed as pure entertainment but serious-minded enough to be a credible work of art.

By the conclusion of her first public performance of Swan Lake, Nina is dancing like she's never danced before. Locking rhythms to the beat of her heart, changing movement into light. On the ice-blue line of insanity - it's a place most never see. There's a cold kinetic heat, struggling, stretching for the peak...

Oh wait, damn it - those are the lyrics to "Maniac." I'll tell you - if I was Michael Sambello I'd be pissed Aronofsky didn't put that song on the soundtrack. It's perfect, just like Nina's hard-won performance. By the time the curtain falls on her big night, she has definitely danced into the danger zone when the dancer becomes the dance.


Will Errickson said...

Just saw this in a theater that had the sound cranked up to rock show levels--overwhelming! But maybe that was the point, to be pummeled into submission by Tchaikovsky. Loved the film, and appreciated some of the laughs in it.

"Man, you can show people being chainsawed in two and I won't blink an eye but seeing someone cut past their fingernails into their skin - you can find me under my seat after it's over."

Uh, yep. First instance of this kinda thing I can recall is in Carpenter's THE THING--when the men have their thumbs slit to draw blood.

Anonymous said...

I am SO glad to hear this film was good. I'm revved to see it and now after reading this review, I'm all the more excited. I guess I kind of thought the plot was different than what was described though. For a while I thought Nina had made some kind of Faust-like pact with the devil to win the part and was becoming a swan because, well, you know the way pacts with the devil work. Damn. Oh, well. I still want to see it!

Jeff Allard said...

Will, that scene in The Thing is classic. Seeing bodies erupt and transform is one thing but seeing a scalpel slit open someone's thumb - that really hits home!

J.D., I'm glad to report that Black Swan is a little different than you expected. Hope you dig the movie!

Bob Ignizio said...

Great review. I personally didn't like the film as much as you, but I was working under the assumption that Aronofsky was taking himself absolutely seriously. Anyway, it's pieces like this why I like reading your blog. Even when I disagree with you, you make me look at the movie in question in a different light.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Bob! Glad you liked the review, if not the movie so much. And I should say, your assumption that Aronofsky was taking himself absolutely seriously could be more correct than my belief that he wasn't. I don't think the movie is meant to be farcical but it did seem to me that he was more consciously crafting a piece of pop entertainment this time around than in films like Requiem.

Requiem isn't a great audience film, to say the least. It's a movie where you slump down in your seat from the start and stay there. Black Swan still puts the audience through the wringer but in the more thrilling way that a good horror film does.

Franco Macabro said...

I thought this was a great Aronofsky film, definetly amongst his best. When Nina was transforming, I clapped, it was a tense moment, I loved how when she first steps in front of the crowd we are right there behind her, seeing and experiencing it with her, an Aronofsky signature camara move.

I wonder if Portman will win that Oscar, I certainly hope she does!

Dom Coccaro said...

Haven't seen this yet. Just wanted to say that you've got another great review on your hands. If this is showing at the theater that I have a gift card for, I'll probably see it within the next week or so.

PS-I posted my Wishmaster review. Let me know what you think!

Jeff Allard said...

FC, an Oscar win for Portman definitely seems like a possibility. I think it's an incredible performance.

Dom, your Wishmaster review cited everything I love about the movie! Thanks for giving a shout-out to star Tammy Lauren - I always thought she was an underrated horror heroine! Definitely better than Neve Campbell and better than JLC in H20!

Sir Jorge Orduna said...

the one movie i want to see, and it's not playing within 100 miles of me, i gotta see this one now, especially after your review

Jeff Allard said...

I hope Black Swan makes it closer to you soon, Sir Jorge! I had to go well out of my way myself to catch it.

Aaron White said...

Check out The Red Shoes sometime. It's not a horror film, but it has some horrific scenes, and it's a classic ballet film that apparently inspired a lot of kids to sign up for dance lessons. I haven't seen Black Swan yet, but I bet Aronofsky checked it out before making this film.

Anyway, I've known a few professional dancers, and it does require some real masochism to choose that career, particularly for classical ballet. It just demands so much self-destructive discipline, staying crazy thin, moving around on your tiptoes in clear defiance of the foot's proper structure... making a horror flick about it makes sense.

Jeff Allard said...

I think Aronofsky has cited The Red Shoes as an influence on Black Swan. Or maybe I've just seen it mentioned in relation to the film elsewhere - I don't know. But anyhow, it sounds like a movie I should check it out!

Anonymous said...

I'm checking this out today and I can't wait. As always, great review. And a hilarious conclusion.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Cortez! Glad you liked the review - I'll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the movie!