Thursday, December 23, 2010

Story, yes; Bedtime, No

      Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" has gotten mixed reviews, but having been a ballet dancer and a lover of Swan Lake, I wanted to see it anyway. I'm a little skittish about anything scary or dark, but I'm glad that I was able to put that aside to see this film. Because in then end, it's just a story - and it's exactly in style of storytelling that the film's strength lies.

     The heroine of the story is a dancer named Nina, who's confidence and sanity are steadily eroded by an overprotective mother, the demanding company director, and the pressure to perform. From the first scene, Aronofsky throws the audience into Nina's world of unrelenting anxiety, progressively smudging the distinctions between stressed reality and horrific hallucination. This is, without a doubt, done with little subtlety and much heavy handedness, but, believe it or not, I think that itself contributes to the successful execution of vision.

     If you're going to get "Black Swan," you have to abandon the idea that just because a film is dramatic, or because the protagonist is a tortured soul, there is the necessity for some profound philosophical truth to be learned. That is not what this film is about - it certainly doesn't offer that, and it's not intended to. 
     What I found so fascinating about the movie is that the style in which Aronofsky presents Nina's saga totally parallels the style of storytelling that comprises nearly every narrative ballet - most of all, Swan Lake.

     Tragic heroine - check (Nina : Odette). Inescapable dilemma - check (Nina's hallucination-inducing anxiety : Odette trapped in a swan body). Tormentors - check (Nina's mother, the company director : Odette transformed by evil sorcerer Von Rothbart). Even the one person who promises an escape from plight - for Nina it's Lily - another dancer who seems to offer some friendship, only to creep in and try to snatch Nina's role : for Odette, it's Prince Siegfried - who promises love enough to break the spell, but instead falls in love with her evil imposter Odile, compelling Odette to commit suicide. The parallels were so evident to me that it became obvious what Aronofsky was trying to accomplish - not just tell the story of Nina's mental disintegration, but really make her into a modern day, fairy-tale heroine.

     Once you think about it, it's not hard to see. Nina's plight is dark and melodramatic - comparable to Nikita, of La Bayadere, or Giselle. What's more, it's twisted - Nina is shown in several strange sexual scenarios, Nikita's lover smokes opium to dream of her, Giselle revisits her true love as a ghost with an army of other dead unmarried women. "Black Swan" offers another comparison: complete inescapability from the story line - even the music in the club that Nina and Lily visit follows a Swan Lake theme. And just like a narrative ballet, Aronofsky makes big, pantomimic gestures to be absolutely sure the audience sees what is happening. On stage this is more appropriate, because you have to say something as silly as, "When I marry you, you'll cease to live as a swan and be returned to a woman's form" purely through gesture, and have it be fully understood by people in the 4th balcony. When something so overt is used in film (say, Nina's legs turning backwards like a bird's, or her arms stretching into wings), it is easy to dismiss it as cloddish. But seen in the comparative light of a story book ballet, it makes perfect sense.

     Fairy tale ballets rarely change. The narratives hardly ever shift, and much of classical choreography is nearly 100 years old. The characters are conveniently one-dimensional, the only exception being the protagonist. What brings life to a ballet that has been performed for generations is the ballerina. Natalie Portman does just that in "Black Swan"; she brings humanity to a story that otherwise provides only caricature. Which is exactly what any great ballerina would do with a classical ballet. 

     Like it or not, "Black Swan" brings something different to the screen, by putting on film the implements of dramatic storytelling typically reserved for the stage.


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