Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Confused at the Movies

Recently Brenda Cooper and I saw the movie THE BLACK SWAN, which has just received a Golden Globe nomination. Since I never know why anything is nominated for anything (and I include science fiction awards), I can't comment on the Golden Globe nod. But I can comment on the movie: It's a gorgeous mess.

I was never bored. But I was bewildered because the director can't seem to make up his mind what sort of film he's making. Part horror movie, part dance movie, part psychological portrait, the elements do not cohere very well. Taken separately:

As a dance movie, THE BLACK SWAN doesn't include enough dancing. On the other hand, the rehearsal scenes capture the hard work that goes into ballet, the stress on dancers' bodies is well portrayed, and there is one wonderful scene on stage that symbolically captures the internal feel of artistic triumph. It's Natalie Portman dancing Odile, and it's terrific. Apparently Portman did some of her own dancing, although I doubt she could have done all those jetes and arabesques, and this doubt is reinforced by the camera occasionally pulling back to a distance and going soft-focus. But she is convincing as a dancer.

As a psychological portrait of a woman descending into madness, the movie is at its best, mostly because of Portman. She gives a wonderful performance.

As a story, however, even a horror story, the movie fails. It's cluttered with subplots that go nowhere, with extra characters (like the older dancer played by Winona Ryder), and with characters whose actions are too inconsistent for the audience to get a sense of who they are (especially Lily). Also, the ending makes no sense whatsoever. [SPOILER ALERT] It's been revealed that all the murders and blood didn't actually take place; it was all in Natalie Portman's head. At the very end, however, her stabbing is real -- every one rushes around sending for ambulances, etc. Yet she has just danced the entire, demanding ballet SWAN LAKE with, supposedly, a fatal stomach wound. Real or not? By this time, no one can tell, and the movie ends on a weak, silly note that undercuts what has gone before.

I'm neither recommending nor not recommending the film. It all depends on what you want from movies.


ed124c said...

I like Natalie Portman's acting, but, as they say, "Maybe worth a rental."

Bryan H. Bell said...

The director of Black Swan is Darren Aronofsky. He's known for making films that are challenging for viewers to interpret, despite their consistent internal logic. His other films include Pi, Requiem For A Dream, and The Fountain. I haven't seen Black Swan yet and perhaps it is true that this one is a miss for Aronofsky. However, given the director's track record, I wonder if your opinion of the film might change after subsequent viewings or even after you've simply had more time to ruminate.

I remember hating 2001: A Space Odyssey the first time I saw it. I thought it was sooo boring. Later, after stumbling upon the end of the film on television one day, I was intrigued and thought perhaps the film deserved a second look. I've since seen it many times and count it among my favorites. Looking back, I think my initial reaction had more to do with my inability to process a narrative structure so different from most other movies.

Nancy Kress said...

Bryan-- I was with the director's non-linear story-telling right up until the end, which just does not add up even by the film's internal logic. I've read that a great many script writers worked on this, and it may be that some pieces were left in just because they're stunning visually, without regard for the story as a whole. I consider that a weakness. In fiction, I tell my students, "Kill your darlings."

Bryan H. Bell said...

Hmm. You could be right about retaining pieces solely for their visual impact. To me, Aronofsky's past work has occasionally indulged in style over content (see also The Cell director Tarsem Singh), though I've always found enough meat to forgive. Maybe this time Aronofsky over-indulged.