Thursday, September 16, 2010

For the Birds

“Black Swan” is one of the creepiest movies I have ever sat through. I’m not exactly sure whom Darren Aronofsky had in mind as the audience for this overwrought poultrypalooza, but it sure isn’t middle-aged Jewish mothers of young women. Anorexic and self- harming teenage girls, perhaps, but are there enough of them out there to fill the mega-plexes? How much popcorn would they buy? Would their boyfriends join them? I doubt it. They’d have to sit through a lot of port des bras and plies before the not-so-hot, skinny girl-on-girl sex scene and that is, thank god, fleeting. If that’s what they’re looking for, they can find it elsewhere for a lot less trouble.

Too artsy to be a horror film, yet still pretty horrible. Certainly, the film is not for balletomanes, like moi, who come for the dancing but soon find out that they have to shut their eyes quickly on too many occasions.

And not for naps.

The dancing, (and editing), is, admittedly, quite well done, even better than in other dance films where movie stars pretend to be dancers. Ms. Portman trained for many months (which is supposed to be impressive, but I thought ballerinas trained for years). She does an acceptable job of twirling around in the close-ups and you can keep yourself quite busy trying to figure out who’s arms and legs those really are, flapping around on the stage in the long shots. There is, however, something missing, as her “artistic director-on-the-make” (Vincent Cassel) constantly reminds her. He calls it passion but we aren’t fooled. We all know he just wants to get into her tutu.

What’s really missing, from my perspective, is an inability to convey the pleasure of dancing. The tortured look on Natalie’s kisser in every shot strips away any enjoyment you have watching her graceful movements from the neck down. Granted, this is endemic to the character she plays, who never has any fun, or cake, but it gets pretty tough to watch after a while.

Apparently, what she and of course, we, must learn is that what is actually required to interpret the role fully, is not dedicated hard work or excellent technique. The story, and the ballet director, both suggest that her innocence (ie. virginity) prevents her from fully interpreting the role of the seductive black swan. This is the greatest come-on rationale I’ve heard in a long time. Even Natalie knows to resist this line, at least for a while. When it takes hold, however, it lures her right off her perch into a downward tailspin of insanity.

It seems our little dancer must incinerate her stuffed animals, trash her ballerina music box and leave her mother’s suffocating nest with her 'dark-swan side', Mila Kunis, who has just flown in from San Francisco, (boy, are her arms tired). Mila can afford to arrive late to class with no need to ‘warm up’, go clubbing the night before a performance, wash assorted drugs down with hard liquor, flirt with boys and still compete for the lead role because she has a big black tattoo of wings on her back.

And, it goes without saying, she has had S-E-X.

It turns out, however, that what's good for the goose, isn't necessarily good for the other goose.

There isn’t a female in this movie, be she human or avian, who couldn’t use a decent meal. I know ballerinas are supposed to be thin, but if Natalie Portman hasn’t been digitally altered, then she needs to ask herself how much she really needs to suffer for her art. Why is it that when male actors have to adapt their bodies for ‘a part’, they invariable get to beef up, while females have to waste away? I acknowledge the rare exceptions of Tom Hanks in ‘Swept Away’ or ‘Overboard’ or whatever the movie was where he ends up talking to a beachball on a deserted island and Rene Zellweger in the Bridget Jones epics, where everyone fretted about her transformation into what used to known in the culture as a woman. In most cases, you hear about guys like De Niro fattening up as Jake LaMotta or Stallone chomping down the steroids to bulk up for his customary oeuvre.

Of course, there is Oscar buzz for Natalie, who gets to starve, fret, self-mutilate AND experiment with her sexuality, not to mention that great indicator of real acting chops, yell at her horrible mother. She also gets to dance up a storm, looking about as carefree as Moira Shearer at the end of ‘The Red Shoes’, another dancing film that traumatized me as a child and convinced me to give up my ballet classes.

The rest of the cast also pecks at the scenery with relish. I saw the film cold, so to speak, at TIFF, knowing only that it was by Aronofsky and with Portman. I'm a sucker for dance movies. There were no credits at the beginning, so it took me quite a while to realize I was watching what was left of the formerly beautiful Barbara Hershey as the mother hen, alternately smothering or pushing her fledgling from the nest. I recognized the voice, but was thrown by what passes, in Hollywood, as cosmetic enhancing surgery.

You shouldn’t really be feeling sorry for the bad people in a movie. It distracts from the plot.

The presence of Winona Ryder escaped me completely until I saw her name in the credits. What a comedown. Not only is she the older washed-up dancer, but she gets shunted off her perch pretty early in the plot. No Anne Bancroft scene-stealing for her. Unless it ended up on the cutting room floor. If they still have cutting rooms.

The leading man, Vincent Cassel, was, to be gracious, not my type. He is very strange looking. Kind of ‘beaky’. You might think this fits right in with the bird imagery, but even though he thinks he's the cock of the walk, he's not conventionally appealing. But then, I have to admit that no man, in my humble opinion, will ever outdo the magnificence of Barishnikov in ‘The Turning Point’ - a much better ballet movie. When he seduces the lithesome young ballerina in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ both en pointe and au lit, it is a much more enjoyable transition from innocence to experience for everyone.

Granted, there are some stunning effects and powerful avian images and sound effects, most of which I am hoping will eventually dissolve from my memory with the passage of time and leave me with few permanent emotional scars.

I won’t go into them here, since I’d hate to spoil their shock value and deprive your own eyes of the opportunity to bleed, like mine and Ms. Portman’s, for themselves.

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