Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Black Swan

Plot summary:  Struggling ballet dancer Natalie Portman is cast as both the innocent White Swan and the lustful Black Swan, and the role slowly creeps into reality as her sanity disintegrates under the pressure.

Word on the street was that this movie was really good but "intense" and "disturbing." One out of these three descriptors is true: it is a very intense film that did a good job of keeping me on the edge of my seat during the climax. That's pretty much the high point, though.

First, the good parts: The two best performances come from Natalie Portman (who has been playing similar roles for a while now) and Tchaikovsky, whose score for Swan Lake imbues the cliché-ridden and heavily padded plot with undeserved gravitas. Actually, the casting is good overall, but the scope of the action is so narrow and the motivations so hastily sketched that it's tough for anyone else to make an impression.

After discussing Black Swan with a couple friends, the consensus was that this movie had a lot of potential but failed to deploy it, due either to the script or the director. I'm inclined to lay the blame at the feet of Darren Aronofsky, whose determination to imbue every scene with the themes of Sex, Black vs White, Reality Distortion and Parallel Characters breaks the suspension of disbelief about halfway in. Like a video game where the secret island base is patrolled by blue ninjas instead of the red ninjas you fought at the dojo, the first couple sex scenes were dramatic and sensual but the next ones trigger only a raised eyebrow.

Another key limiting factor is the script's unwillingness to show character development that isn't summarized in the first four lines of the movie. Bad girl Mila Kunis is eternally (for no apparent reason) eager to make friends with our heroine, whose level of craziness is pretty much the same for the entire film. Other standard ballet movie tropes (the sexually irresistible teacher, the creepy domineering mother, the jilted rival, the ambitious climber, the contrast-heavy backdrops, arriving late for practice) stay at the same level of dramatic intensity throughout, and it is only Portman who manages to make us care. Again, this is a failure of directing, as the same eerie music and shaky-cam shots are given to the petty coincidences of minute 5 as the full-blown crazy of minute 90. The pacing is also off: several scenes have no relation to the plot but were just too good to cut, so they are haphazardly thrown in

This isn't to say that Black Swan is a bad movie. It's just that you can see glimpses of a great drama behind it, and I'm frustrated that it never really gets there.

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