Of course, I know the real blame lies with George Lucas and his pathological inability to direct anything with a pulse. I also know Portman isn’t waiting, with bated breath, for my forgiveness. Nevertheless, she and Hayden Christiansen are the reason why I have to keep my hand on the remote, ready to hit fast-forward, when watching any of the Star Wars prequels.
Bias aside, she was amusing in Thor, and I really liked her in V for Vendetta.
Her performance in Black Swan, however, is a lot more Padme (Star Wars) than Evey (V for Vendetta).
In Black Swan, Portman plays the role of Nina, a dancer with a major ballet company. As in highly completive. Nina is a technically brilliant dancer but greatness eludes her. Why? Because she lives with her control-freak mother. Mummy is living out her resentments and failed career through her daughter, because, when in doubt, go Freudian and blame Mom. Thanks to Mummy, Nina has lived a sexless, joyless life devoted to ballet.
The film’s inciting incident is the announcement that the company will begin its season with Swan Lake. The previous prima ballerina is put out to pasture to make way for a new one. Who will it be? Cue the catty theatrics, because you can’t portray a group of women without the claws.
Nina is desperate for the role of the swan, but first she must win over her smarmy ballet director. The ballet director is played by Vincent Cassel, whose huge eyes and aquiline nose call to mind The Muppets’ Sam the Eagle. A skeevy Sam Eagle. Mr. Director’s real name is Thomas but I shall call him Beaky. Beaky tells Nina that her perfection-driven dancing and inherent fragility make her the perfect white swan, but he thinks she lacks the passion, the necessary darkness, for the black swan. To prove his point, he kisses Nina; she responds by biting his lip. She rushes from his office and runs home to Mummy, but learns the next day that she has gotten the part. Yay, her! Apparently, chomping on Beaky’s lip proved that she had the necessary fire. This, of course, is moronic since all it really meant was that she didn’t like being Frenched by a condor.
And thus begins Nina’s descent into madness….which may have been effective if Nina’s character were marginally sane and likeable. Likeable, btw, doesn’t necessarily mean “nice,” but rather “interesting.” This isn’t the cautionary tale of a strong character brought to her knees by the insane pressures of a creative profession, but rather the story of how loony gets eat-your-own-skin-crazy.
At the movie’s beginning, Nina’s crazy house of cards is already one tap away from collapse. The psychological thriller aspect of the film is derived largely from the fact that Nina is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Does she really have a bleeding rash? Is she really self-mutilating, or is it part of her existing psychosis? And why the hell should I care?
Fans of the movie might argue that it’s a commentary on how art can destroy talent; break fragile psyches and whatnot. Meh. The same can be said for a career in any competitive field. Insert old saying regarding “heat” and “kitchen.” Point of fact, the idea that a ballet director would cast an obviously emotionally unstable dancer in a pivotal role stretches this viewer’s credulity to a loud “Snap!”
Natalie Portman gives a one-note performance, her eyes peering fearfully out at the world under perfectly plucked eyebrows. It’s a pitch-perfect note, but you need eight to make real music. The movie’s only bright spot is Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s rival who enters the stage as an agent of chaos in Nina’s life. It’s unclear whether her motives are benevolent or evil, but hers is the only human face to be seen in movie where everyone else feels like a stylized mask. (Yeah, I know. That’s the point. But it doesn’t work for me–at all.)
What I find interesting is that fans of this kind of movie love to slag fantasy, science fiction and romance as “unoriginal.” And yet Black Swan’s story is a dull pastiche of well-worn archetypes: the overbearing mother; the lecherous male authority figure; the cadre of jealous mean girls. The movie’s set piece is the over-done Swan Lake. I don’t know anything about ballet, but there must be other ballets out there that incorporate the darkness and light premise. Black Swan is sometimes a visually arresting movie, but relies on simplistic, cliché visuals to convey the point: black equals bad; white, good.
Clearly, director Darren Aronofsky’s films, and their ilk, aren’t my cup of tea, but I found his critically panned, tragic love story on acid, The Fountain much more entertaining and compelling. True, the presence of Hugh Jackman didn’t hurt.
File this one under “MEH.”