Saturday, March 29, 2014

34. Black Swan (2010)




Code-name: Psycho-Lebanese
("Lebanese" is a "Glee" reference, by the way, Google it!)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied
Type: coming-of-age, R-rated sexy thriller

Cast:
Nina- Natalie Portman
Lily- Mila Kunis
Thomas Leroy-Vincent Cassel
Nina's mother- Barbara Hershey
Beth McIntyre- Winona Ryder
The Prince- David Millepied

Notable Awards and Nominations:
OSCAR- Best Actress- Natalie Portman
nomination-OSCAR-Best Picture
nomination- OSCAR- Best Director- Darren Aronofsky
nomination- OSCAR- Best Cinematography
nomination- OSCAR- Best Film Editing
Golden Globe- Best Actress (Drama)- Natalie Portman
nomination- Golden Globe- Best Picture- Drama
nomination- Golden Globe- Best Director- Darren Aronofsky
nomination- Golden Globe- Best Supporting Actress- Mila Kunis
AFI- Movie of the Year
nomination- Grammy- Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media

Write-up:

September 2011

The last Saturday of that month was when "Black Swan" came to HBO.
In more ways than one, one of the most stimulating and intriguing cinematic experiences I've ever had.

It got a lot of hype the previous awards season, but a lot of it was for... some could say... the wrong reasons. It wasn't released in a lot of theaters, but I'm willing to bet a lot of guys flocked (no pun intended, I promise) to theaters just to see Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in that racy lesbian sex scene.

My dad saw it in-flight and when he told us about it, there was an air of caution in his tone.
Words like "paranoia" and "lesbianism" came up.
Even before he gave his thoughts, I had wanted to see this movie for a couple reasons. One of them being that it looked really beautiful and stunning from a visual standpoint. Mila Kunis is a “That 70′s show” alum and I was definitely curious to see how she’d do in a big movie role like this, something REALLY challenging. Then of course the lesbianism was an intriguing idea on its own.

...I'll go into it in more detail, obviously, but it was an exhilarating, intense, artsy film that I got really invested in. It wowed me with all that it brings to the table.
I added that it was a "coming of age" story because an underlying theme was Natalie Portman's character maturing from a na├»ve girl into a woman. And as someone with zero sexual experience, I felt like it was one of those movies I saw when I was 25 that accumulated my mind to the subject. To the point where the occasional sex scene doesn't make me squirm quite as much, so long as it's brief and is important to the plot.  

Again, that's another entry on its own, addressing that, but let's just say I came across a few movies afterwards where sex was nauseatingly overused.
One happened to be a Robert Pattinson movie where it was kinda disappointing that he didn't die at the end... his philandering character had zero redeemable qualities.

But, anyway, back to business.

The Premise and its Players

Before getting too far ahead of myself, I want to give props to the real ballerina on set, Sarah Lane. She reportedly got very upset that she wasn't given enough credit for her performance as Natalie Portman's dance double.
Whatever you brought to the set, Sarah, it was AWESOME.

***

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, an aspiring ballet who had been part of this company for several years. The director/choreography of the studio Thomas (played by the very handsome Vincent Cassel) announces that the next production will be a reimagining of “Swan Lake.” 

I knew very little about this show going into this other than the signature Tchaikovsky score.
But after hearing the story, it sounded vaguely like "Swan Princess."
One of my favorite animated movies as a kid... I haven't seen it in years.

In that version, Princess Odette and her Prince were betrothed since they were kids. Back then, they hated each other. But when they grew up, they fell in love. Until a sorcerer abducts her and casts a spell on her where she can only resume her human form at night when she's on the lake with the full moon overhead.
The dramatic climax does borrow from the plot of "Swan Lake" where the sorcerer's assistant disguises herself as Odette and has the Prince swear a vow of undying love, the only thing able to break the spell. Because of this, she almost dies.
Obviously the kid's version of this story because there is a happy ending for her and the Prince.

In the actual show, Princess Odette is turned into a swan and only love can break the spell. She gets the Prince to fall in love with her, but her evil twin, The Black Swan, seduces the Prince away from her.
Thomas's reimagining has two distant differences:
1) the show ends with Princess Odette's suicide, jumping over a cliff into a field of sharp, pointy rocks
2) he wants the same girl to play the innocent Princess Odette AND her evil seductive twin.

The role is made available to Nina because the star of the company is getting on in years and gets fired because it's time for someone younger to take over. Beth is played by Winona Ryder, whom I didn’t even recognize (a lot of people said the same thing). After being forced into retirement, Beth has a breakdown and runs into ongoing traffic.

Nina visits her in the hospital twice. Both occasions are pretty dramatic, one way the price of perfection is demonstrated in the film overall.

Thomas knows of her skill, but doesn't believe Nina carries the air of seduction needed for the Black Swan. To show her what she lacks, he points out another ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis) who exudes the sexuality he desires for this role.

As a result, a rivalry ensues, all of which are mind games brought on by Thomas for pitting them against each other and Nina's increasingly addled mental state.
One detail I distinctly remembered about the filming was director Darren Aronofsky kept Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis separate when they weren't shooting to help create the needed tension between their characters. Supposedly, that also included threatening text messages sent to them from each other.
I thought the gist of the movie was that Mila Kunis was a lesbian because it would explain the sex scene all of this was building up to. Just the way that they exchanged dialogue, that's how it came off to me. Or maybe that was the story I wanted to see come out of this. The tension between them, sexual or not, was so on-point that I came more invested as time went on.

I was also blinded by Vincent Cassel because I found him so attractive. I failed to see that his methods were on the sadistic side, having sex with the ballerinas in the company to free their minds for better dancing.
The assignment he gives Nina to free the sexual disposition of the Black Swan:
"When you go home, touch yourself."

So yeah, not the greatest movie to watch in mixed company.
The third time she attempts to follow through with this winds up being the lesbian sex scene.
The first two times, she stops short of an orgasm because she discovers her overprotective mother asleep in the chair by her bed and she has a mental episode in the bathtub.

Which brings me to the one R-rated aspect of this movie I really didn't like...
Nina had all kinds of hallucinations throughout the film. My least favorite was when she peeled a lot of skin back on her fingers after clipping her nails too short and there was a lot of blood. I'm not quite one of those people that faints at the sight of blood, but it does make me cringe. The same thing goes for needles (all thanks to the stuff I went previous to and after my scoliosis surgery). I just thought it was overkill, honestly, her bleeding from random appendages.

Other hallucinations include a growing rash (that she oddly never scratches) and feathers coming out of her skin randomly. Also seeing Lily in random places and her reflection taking on a life of its own.
That stuff, I thought, made for a pretty good horror movie/suspense thriller. I'm not the biggest fan of the horror genre, but "Black Swan" had a lot of the same ingredients and made them work in a way that was very compelling.

The sex scene come about after a night of partying out on the town, something Nina never does with her sheltered life under the constant vigilance of her mother.
Lily invites her to come along with her and a couple friends. Nina was about as awkward as I am in large gatherings with people I don't know. So Lily slips her a tab of ecstasy to loosen her up. The atmosphere transforms into a freaking rave. What an adrenaline rush and there was no end for ages... it was pretty awesome.

!SPOILERS AHEAD!

So it was a bit of a letdown when it was revealed that the sex scene never happened. Nina and Lily see each other the day after and Lily said that Nina disappeared after a couple hours and she didn't see her again for the rest of the night.... seriously? buzzkill, much.

But after whatever shenanigans happened the night before, Nina's mother clearly believes she is not well and locks her in her room on the opening night of the show.
Of course, she does bust out and fights to get her role back from Lily, who had received it as her understudy.

It was also kinda disappointing that the entire movie built up to opening night, so there wasn't as much dancing as I would have liked. But make no mistake, all of the best stuff was saved for last.
However brief it is in the 108-minute span of this film, the Black Swan sequence is incredible! Especially since her arms transform into wings. I wondered if it was even possible for her to revert to other role because she'd finally crossed to the dark side :-P

It should be noted that you need to pay attention to everything in the movie because it becomes increasingly difficult to discern reality from the hallucinations.
Another one of those jaw-dropping double-take moments was the final confrontation between Nina and Lily.

!AGAIN, MORE SPOILERS
STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO GET THE FULL EFFECT OF THE SHOCK VALUE
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

The tension hits a breaking point and Nina kills Lily...
only to find out later that she's still alive and she actually stabbed herself.

Despite that, she gives the performance of her life with the final stage of Odette's life... only to die in the name of perfection.

I saw this movie only once and the final 10 minutes a second time when my mom saw it. But I can still remember coming to the end.
I found it a little anti-climatic. The screen went white after her final line looking up at the camera: "I was perfect." with sirens in the background.
It would have been nice to know if she lived or not.

Some of the trivia I read does suggest that she does. The blood from her self-inflicted stab wound comes from a very suggestive place, which can be construed as an indication that she is officially a woman.
But personally, I prefer the more poetic ending that she died in the name of perfection. It really does make you think.

Not that any discipline I'd attempted in my life, other than schoolwork, demands that kind of perfection.
I'm a huge fan of gymnastics and figure skating, but more for the artistic expression than the skill. But it does help when the landings are stuck ;)

And for the record, the fact I'm doing this Darren Aronofsky film the same way his "Noah" production comes out is purely coincidence.

The same goes for my next film.

Coming Soon

With maybe one or two exceptions, my next slew of films are ones I'd loved watching for years. One was a 2010 film that introduced me to one of my favorite actresses.

But next week is a book-to-movie adaptation that worked out really well and it makes you rethink what you thought you knew about Biblical history. Unless of course you're an ultra-conservative Christian, in which case you're better off skipping out on this next one.

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