James Helsby

LRE #47: Black Swan

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Little Red Envelope

In my mailbox this week:
Black Swan

Release Year: 2010

Staring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

I never would have thought that I would be covering my eyes in fear from a Natalie Portman film. Let alone, one about ballet.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I am making an effort to watch all of this years Academy Award nominees for Best Motion Picture. Black Swan was next on the list. And wow, I have to admit it was nothing like what I was expecting. And I guess because of that fact, so far I would say Black Swan is my leading candidate, usurp Inception.

God, I hate to admit that, because Inception was a phenomenally good movie. But Black Swan accomplished something that I didn’t think was possible for me. I was scared, and at moments found myself covering my eyes like a little school girl. I think it has more to do with my triggers than anything else. Suspense I always find more horrifying than gore, and while gore has its place; often it is more comedic than anything else. That said, I still hate the Saw movies, and even things like Human Centipede, because they hit a similar trigger.

But the amazing thing about Black Swan, was that I was expecting a significant amount less than what I got. It was a good film, in its own right. And when you factor in the triggers and the response that they actually elicited from me, I got more out of Black Swan than out of Inception. Inception, was ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ and visually brilliant. But it didn’t really make me feel anything for the characters. It was just a movie. Black Swan, well…. I went emo. I felt something. Luckily it didn’t take the drastic events in the film, reenacted in my own life for me to feel.

Black Swan follows ballet company employee (no other way to really say that, she is a career dancer and I assume paid for the part) Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). Nina has been groomed from the very first moments of her life to be in the ballet. And in her home (where her mother Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey)) controls her with an iron fist. Whittling Nina into the perfect ballet dancer, through negative reinforcement and manipulation in just about everything she does. When Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) decides that she wants to (forcibly) retire from her prima-ballerina role in the company, just in time for the new adaptation of the play, The Black Swan, to be rehearsed and cast; Nina steps up to audition.

Nina handily wins the part of the white swan, as she is told by the company producer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) she is devastated that her performance of the alter-ego the Black Swan lacks any kind of emotion. Nina who has practiced her whole life with nothing but perfection in mind, does not understand emotion. She has repressed feeling so far down into her physice that… well, it is starting to manifest itself in unusual ways.

Full blown psychosis.

And when company new comer, Lily (Mila Kunis) is thrown into the mix, Nina descends into madness.

My synopsis might be a little short on this LRE, and with good reason. The film just follows one straight path. And if too much of that path is given away, you may be able to guess the ending. Or perhaps the middle, and none of which are things that I want to ruin. The film is INTENSE, from the beginning to the end it’s just one straight story line which can be a little difficult to follow. About 3/4 of the way through the film, my wife and I stopped to grab a drink. She turned to me and asked, “So what’s this movie about?”

It might seem like a dumb question, but it wasn’t. The film doesn’t present any clear picture of it’s plot. There are times that you think it is about Nina. There are other times that you think it is about Nina and her mother. Or Nina and Thomas. Or Nina and Beth. Or Nina and Lily. But the truth of the matter is that the story Is [spoiler blank] itself an adaptation of The Black Swan!

And it took the entire film for that truth to be manifest. Throughout we have moments of intense violence, intense sexuality, and just intense situation. I sort of freaked out a little bit when towards the end, Nina went to go and visit Beth. Well, that sequence was totally a trigger for me. I cowered.

Black Swan was amazing in that despite my adamant dislike for the subject (I really don’t like ballet) it was a film more about the pursuit of perfection. And how no matter how hard you struggle to reach perfection, it is fleeting. You may hold it for one brief moment, but the next it will slip through your fingers. The obsession with that perfection brings around ruin to yourself and to other. And if I walked away from the film with anything clear in my mind, it was to never again be obsessed to the point of going crazy over something.

Natalie Portman won the Oscar for best leading actress, and I don’t know if I agree with this. While Portman was good in the part, what I found was that the intensity of her portrayal was brought by the situation, and not by her actions or dialog. Sure, she delivered a convincing part, but I almost feel like it needed more. And that god awful look that she had on her face through the whole move just drove me a little nuts. I mean, I understand that she lost something like 20 lbs for the part (and that is alot when you start off at 120) but you should still try and close your mouth sometimes.

There was a lot of drama back a month ago about who was dancing, whether it was Portman or the dance-double. But really who cares. The dancing ends up being a minor part to the film. So if you are hesitant to watch Black Swan because you think it is all about ballet (like I was) then just forget it. If you want a great psychological thriller, then here it is.

How painful was it: Yeah Yeah Yeah, I cowered in my hands like a little girl. Get over it. There is something about pulling half the skin off your finger that just unnerves me.

Rating: 8/10. Inception was still better, but this probably was the better Oscar pick.

The Wife’s Retort: Can we watch something happy now? Like with soft fluffy bunnies, or baby sheep?

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