Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Black Swan: Not the Best Movie of 2010

Granted, I'm a bad choice of person to ask what the best movie of the year is.  (After all, I'm one of like six people in my demographic who still hasn't seen Inception.)  But I'm pretty sure that best movie is not Black Swan.

There's not much to be said for the plot of the movie.  As a character study of a slowly developing insanity, it's fine, but "protagonist seeks impossible goal and goes insane" has been done to death over the last five centuries.  Shakespeare did it with Hamlet, Cervantes with Don Quixote, Dostoevsky with Crime and Punishment, and Joseph Conrad with Heart of Darkness (probably the best "descent into madness" thriller out there).  Black Swan draws from this fertile ground of storytelling but doesn't leave much of its own impact.

And let's be honest: from the moment that Natalie Portman's character Nina explains the plot of Swan Lake for the first time, we all know what's going to happen in the end.  Portman's Nina--whose "White Swan" allegory couldn't be made more obvious if she wrote "white swan" on her forehead (naturally, with white marker)--is obviously destined to die by her own hand.  (Black Swan did do legions of theatergoers the service of informing them how stupid the plot of Swan Lake is: girl is transformed into a swan and ends up killing herself because the guy she's after falls in love with the wrong girl?  Whatever you say, Pyotr Ilyich.)

Thematically, amateur critics could have a field day throwing out allegations of "symbolism" with Swan's black-and-white drenched mise en scene.  But in order to be symbolic, the supposed symbol must actually symbolize something.  Any viewer could make the argument that any given black or white item had some deeper significance behind it.  For a handful of costume pieces and important props, that's of course the intention, but it would be possible to seek your own impossible goal and reach your own madness trying to assign a symbolic interpretation to everything that is white or black.  Sorry, but the black doorframes do not represent unrestrained passion.  They're just part of the black/white motif--and that's totally fine--but let them be doorframes and don't make them more than they need to be.

Finally, that Natalie Portman should be lauded as heavily as she has been for her performance is baffling.  She carries the role of Nina just fine, and her dancing skills are certainly legitimate and praise-worthy, but the problem is that her character is just not interesting.  That's not Natalie Portman's fault, of course, but it feels counter-intuitive to heap awards on acting out a character based on deer-in-the-headlights stares and a frailty that comes across less as fragile vulnerability and more as bland weakness.

Black Swan isn't terrible.  Vincent Cassel plays the manipulative, twisted-artist role to perfection (and pulling off a straight French ballet director should be award-worthy in its own right), and it's entertaining enough to sort through Nina's psyche to figure out which parts of the movie are real and which ones all in her head.  Where the movie succeeds most is in giving an unflinching look at dancer culture; with its pressures and infighting, it's easy to believe that this is the kind of thing that could drive Nina mad.

It's entertaining and probably worth seeing if you're up to the challenge of putting together a few pieces yourself, but Black Swan just doesn't pave enough new ground or come together in the right places to legitimately be the best movie of its year.

Currently listening: "Pretend You're Alive," Lovedrug


Carina said...

After my house had the Russian Ballet tour in with Swan Lake, I made the comment that the plot left something to be desired. People looked at me strangely.

Samantha said...

Hmm....you should watch The King's Speech. That one was good.