Films Watched: January 22 to 28

Here is what I watched this week.  (I’m beginning to see why Netflix keeps recommending me “films with strong female leads”.) Continue reading “Films Watched: January 22 to 28”

A Black Swan of a Controversy

Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan has come under fire recently. How much of the complicated dance sequences did she really perform herself? How much was performed by a dancing double? Sarah Lane, the double, came forward and said that Portman only performed about five person of the dance numbers. Fox Searchlight, director Darren Arnofsky, and Mila Kunis have all defended Portman’s performance.

Lane has written a compelling post about the rigorous demands of ballet and what a film like Black Swan means for the ballet world in the Wall Street Journal. She writes: “My only wish is that Natalie, Darren and certain others who worked closely on the movie, could have grasped the beauty and the heart of true ballet. If they had, they would have advocated for this art more and given the real dancers the credit that they deserve.”

Is Lane justified to bring her concerns to the media?  To an extent, yes. She obviously feels as though she has been cast aside by the film’s producers in favor of Portman, the star who went on to win the industry’s biggest award. Lane feels that the media is the only place she can turn to justify her concerns and gain any sort credit.

But there is an oversight in Lane’s commentary. She seems to have seen a different version of Black Swan than I did. Yes, Black Swan is about the beauty and heart of true ballet; there is no doubt that the film captures and respects this notion.  But it is also a highly nuanced and intricate film about, for instance, the decaying female body, mental instability, sexual repression, and personal desire. Ballet serves, in many ways, a metaphor for all of this. On top of all this, Black Swan is a feast of special effects and visual creativity.

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Natalie Portman’s performance is about more than whether or not she  dances en pointe. Her strongest scenes are not these dance sequence that become inundated by these special effects, including the use a double. It is in the scene early on in the film when Nina seeks out Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy to convince him that she deserves the part of the Swan Queen. Until this moment, Nina had been a mostly silent character, shown to be meticulously dedicated to her craft and overwhelmingly quiet. It is Portman’s first scene with extended dialogue. During it you see how Nina, the character, attempts to morph into something she wants to be for the part she desire most. She wears her hair down, she wears bright red lipstick, and she attempts to really use her voice. Scenes like this are the reason why Portman won an Oscar for acting.

This is why when Lane came forward with her grievances, I thought “So?”. Lane has unintentionally exposed her naiveté about how movies are made. Yes, movies are an art form, but they are also apart of an industry. Lane, unfortunately, just became a sort of pawn in that industry. Lane has a right to express her opinion on the matter. But there is a considerable difference between what Natalie Portman did in Black Swan and what Lane did.

What are your thoughts on this controversy? Does it affect your perception of Black Swan? And, perhaps the more pressing question, how long did you wait before purchasing your copy of Black Swan?

Review: Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan begins with a dream. A dancer bathed in the light takes center stage and performs a haunting scene from Swan Lake that serves as a metaphor for the remainder of this Darren Aronofsky film.

The dreamer is Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman), a New York City ballerina. Nina meticulously strives for perfection in her technique and appearance, no matter the cost to her body or her sanity. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) plans a re-imagination of Swan Lake, Nina lands the role of the Swan Queen and replaces the aging prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder).

Nina perfectly encompasses the White Swan but it is the imperfect and sensual Black Swan that is harder for her to perform. This is because Nina is very much a child. She wakes in her childhood bedroom and lives under the gaze of her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey). She has never experienced love or sex or freedom. Her life is dictated by the rigorous demands of performance. When she begins a twisted real and unreal relationship with Lily (Mila Kunis), a tattooed dancer in the company, Nina discovers the darkest depths of her being.

Black Swan emphasizes the great lengths ballerinas go to perfect their craft. The female form is explored in all its stages from that of the young ingénue to the aged, wrinkled instructor. No trace of the dancer’s body is left unscathed or is not finely manicured. Aronofsky pays close attention to this detail. Shots of feet, legs, hands, arms, backs, torsos that are bloodied, broken, and beaten down beyond real repair brings a gritty realism to this psychological thriller.

Above all, it is the psychological demands of performance that drive Black Swan. The more Nina delves into the role, the more Thomas uses sex to direct her, the more the competitive nature of the craft eats away at Nina, the more Nina loses control. A constant use of mirrors and windows reflects Nina’s image and her weakening psychological state. At times, her reflection merges with Lily’s as she becomes more like this dancer and is pushed to the brink.

Nina’s battle is not with her mother, Thomas, or the other dancers. It is with her dark alter ego, the vision that haunts her in every mirror after every pirouette. At first she cannot handle or accept her alternative self; this self wants her to experience sex, drugs, frivolity. Her body breaks down; it begins to transform beyond her control.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is one of the more visually stunning and thought-provoking films I have seen in recent memory. It is a film drenched in symbolism where the smallest details matter most. Portman and Kunis tackle the physically demanding roles of ballerinas with grace and apparent ease. Their performances are rich and haunting. Nothing more so than the final moments when Nina accepts her darker self as her true self, she becomes alive. She achieves the perfect performance and she breaks free.

New Trailer For Black Swan: Enter Winona

The release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan tomorrow cannot come soon enough. As the hype surrounding this movie builds, Natalie Portman continues to be shortlisted as a potential Best Actress Oscar nominee.

Until then here is the latest trailer unveiled by Fox Searchlight. It is filled with additional footage not seen in the previous trailer, including some scenes of Winona Ryder’s Beth McIntyre, the ballerina who Portman’s Nina Sayers’ replaces.

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