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Black Swan is summing up to be one of the most controversial Oscar-hopefuls of the season.  There seems to be a strict divide on audiences’ opinions; “Either you view it as a flawed, gritty take on the rigors of ballet and how they affect this particular character, or you choose to view it as a Freudian nightmare of a woman contending with her repressed sexuality with the world of ballet serving simply as a backdrop.” Being the savvy peruser of all media on the internet, I found a DVD screener of the film and was able to watch it twice; the first try, I was unimpressed.  Natalie Portman’s performance was reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s superior portrayal of the damaged yet talented beauty throughout her career, but days later my mind was still reeling, dissecting the film, so I decided to watch it again. The second time around, I had the completely opposite reaction–I was moved to tears, feeling a deep sense of empathy and understanding for the protagonist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).  I definitely feel that it’s a film that haunts you, and it hits on a type of suffering that is very universal for women or artists (of which I am both), if you’re watching it in the right frame of mind.

I’ve heard a lot of arguments against the film’s perceived originality.  The psychological thriller is not a new genre, and in many ways Black Swan isn’t doing anything to its audiences that wasn’t done in Sixth Sense; its ambiguity is a bit frustrating in the context of its intense portrayal of female sexuality, more openly Freudian than Hitchcock’s best works.  It is clear at every moment that you’re watching a film written, directed, and produced from a male prospective, even down to the lesbian wet dreams and feminine sexual rivalry.  It’s perhaps the most open attempt at examining the male/female unconscious but it’s a Hollywood film that’s made over $60 million dollars.  With that in mind, Black Swan is not going to find a place among the great works of feminist cinema.

So it’s not the most groundbreaking film.  Compared to Darren Aronofsky’s other films, it’s not as original, nor does it offer an untold story as his other works (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, Pi).  In fact, unlike his other works, Black Swan is a contemporary idiom on the story of Swan Lake–all the aspects of the original story are, in essence, borrowed from an early reference.  However, the film is still ambitious, relevant, even important as a testimonial to gender politics in post-modern cinema, if you’re willing to take the over-all ambivalent nature of the film with the highest expectations, placing a responsibility on the production values and semiotics in the visual aspects of the film.  That is to say, if you’re a person who is willing to see the film as the product of vision and struggle, rather than another voice yammering on in some conversation of what a man thinks it means to be a woman, you’re probably on the pro-Black Swan team.

For me, the beauty in watching Black Swan was knowing that all of the struggles of Nina Sayers were being felt by Natalie Portman through her preparation and portrayal of the role.  When Toma (Vincent Cassel) grabbed Nina’s face and shoved his tongue down her throat, the sexual aggression Portman had to endure in order to be professional was very real.  Although Portman is a trained ballet dancer, she spent a year preparing physically; Portman used the real, physical pain she felt as fuel into the psychological mindset of a prima ballerina, her stage being the silver screen rather than Lincoln Center.  Turns out Portman’s real life mother had some similarities with Nina’s as well: “She was always worried and scared about me working, asking me, ‘Do you really want to do that?’ And I would beg and cry and plead, but both my parents were very protective in not wanting me to act that much…. but she wasn’t a pushy mother at all.” The symbolic ending of the film added what I felt was a poignant statement on what it means to be an artist, visually portraying the physical manifestations of suffering one must endure through their bodies and minds in order to fulfill their purpose.

I thought the intense focus on the body that came with such a film was a greatly understated aspect.  Dance is the art of controlling one’s body, and I thought this played out in a very complimentary way in terms of this film being a product of post-modernism.  There is, again, the aspect of the interdisciplinary genre work–the fact that the actresses were all trained dancers, and also Clint Manswell’s reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake score in order to create a new relationship between the choreography and cinematography.  But the other connection is one between female sexuality and the relationship with one’s body–at every turn, Nina’s body is rebelling against her, even to the point of psychosis.  This metaphor was perhaps a bit too obvious for most women, especially combined with all the prevalent bitchy dancer stereotypes that hinder Nina’s relationships with every woman she interacts with.  There’s also the fact that the famous French choreographer, Toma, was a huge pervert, with not even especially good pick-up lines, who basically gets away with sexually inappropriate relationships with his dancers because he’s just that good-looking and brilliant.  Not anything redeeming about that character, but, hey, maybe that was the point.

In the end, I liked Black Swan because I felt it was a film I could relate to.  I interpreted a lot of the more “ambiguous” parts of the film to be the product of Nina’s psychosis, which I think speaks to all artists who have ever struggled with mental illness or depression. The gender dynamics of the film didn’t offend me because I took them as a critique.  I came to accept the film’s similarities to previous works because of its success of reintroducing concepts that seldom seem to come out of Hollywood these days.  I related both the character Nina and the actress Natalie Portman’s process to writing a poem, and using your art to manifest all of the demons inside of you.  And I’d definitely recommend it to anyone prepared to stomach such a work. Like I said, there’s DVD screeners floating around on the internet, so take a look, and let me know if you think the film deserves any Oscars.

Or, just watch Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Black Swan on Saturday Night Live to get the gist of it all.

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