Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar frontrunner: Black Swan

Image courtesy of Cross Creek Pictures.

If you're as crazy about films as I am, you are probably getting as juiced as I am about the Oscars tonight. In honor, I will be doing a double-header review of the two films that, in my opinion, are going to sweep the awards tonight.

Black Swan is a strange, dark dream. Having done ballet when I was younger, the dedication of dancers to their craft - mentally and bodily - was always a bit disturbing as well as admirable. It is a world made more beautiful by obsession to detail - the quest for perfection.

I also grew up watching a rather obscure film called The Red Shoes (1948) starring an actual ballerina, Moira Shearer, that focuses on the very obsession to the art - and the disastrous consequences when it is taken too far.

Black Swan is like the evil twin of that film. It deals with the same themes in the same world, but it is far more cerebral; far more intense, because we are placed INSIDE the head of Nina, a talented dancer just on the verge of breaking into "prima" ballerina territory. It is directed by Darren Aronofsky, of whom I became endeared to after watching The Wrestler (2008) starring all-too appropriately, Mickey Rourke. But there was another film on my shelf by Mr. Aronofsky that I picked up on sale and had yet to watch - The Fountain (2006). It was a film that took a long time to make and in the end, was a bit of a dud. And it is understandable why. It shows one man's journey to learn how to cope with death, but everything is dreamlike, and even when scenes are set in the "real" world, the characters attitudes and dialogue are still not of this world. Or at least the one I live in anyway. And yet, it had a poignant message that rang through. The Wrestler, on the other hand, was gritty, reality to the extreme, nothing airbrushed or dreamlike about this film, no way.

Black Swan is a marriage of elements between these two films. The Wrestler was almost too gritty and raw, while The Fountain was too unreal in its tone and feel. Black Swan strikes the right chord by showing all the sometimes very painful physical rigors required of ballerinas, while also showing the surreal reality that Nina's world is comprised of. It's no wonder she's having delusions when she is wandering around with people dressed as black, feathery owl magicians day in and day out.

Black Swan is also, strangely, very funny at times. Mila Kunis plays a large part in being the delightful reality check for us, but sadly poor Nina is just too far gone for even Mila to be able to pull her back to true reality. Also, it should be mentioned that Vincent Cassel really should've been included in Best Supporting Actor as the urbane and manipulative ballet manager who simultaneously aids in expanding Nina's darker, more sensual side, which unwittingly on his part leads to her downfall. Aronofsky, through trial and error, knows just how far to take the audience - indeed, at times, he brings us right to the edge - before pulling us back into safer emotional territory. Natalie Portman, as Nina, is nothing short of extraordinary. It is clear she has given over her body as well as her soul to the role, and much of the dancing we see is actually HER. There is no question in my mind that she will obtain at least an Oscar for Best Actress, and if she does not The Academy really should get their heads examined.

About the only thing about Black Swan that keeps it from entering the realm of Best Picture in my book is it is not accessible to everyone. I believe much of my enjoyment came from knowing Aronofsky and what his films are like, but had I not had that background I would have been much more confused as to what the heck he was trying to do. There are several truly bizarre elements to it that will not gel with all audiences, and no tidy social commentary that the Academy loves so well. And, as darkly lovely as it is, it will never quite replace The Red Shoes for me in my heart.

Lastly, a bit of advice - do not see this film alone. It is not the most terrifying film, but it has some very frightening cerebral moments that made me happy I had my beloved with me to clutch at times.

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