Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Black Swan

In spite of some great theatre offerings in town this fall, (The Seafarer, The Savannah Dispute and White Christmas all come to mind) I haven't reviewed much theatre or film lately.

There's one simple reason for this: I've been mostly working nights, and the evenings I've had away from my day job, have been spent onstage or on camera as a performer, rather than as a paying customer. Mea culpa.

New Year's Resolution #1: more blogging in 2011.

So in the last week of the year, my lovely housemate Brenda, arranged for me to join her, and a few friends at a screening of "The Black Swan".  Director Darren Arnofsky has done interesting work in the past, (The Wrestler) and I was anxious to see what he would do with ballet as his subject.

We were not alone in our enthusiasm. The theatre was so packed, we had to sit right at the front, a thing I hadn't done since my days at TIFF screenings, in years gone by. The curved screen, and the constantly moving camera made for unsettling viewing.

It's an unsettling picture. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is chosen from the corps de ballet to replace an aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder chanelling Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard") and dance one of classical ballet's most challenging roles: Odette/Odile the white and black swans in "Swan Lake".

Nina is a rigid perfectionist, sandwiched between a narcissistic, suffocatingly controlling, failed dancer of a mother (Barbara Hershy) and a Svengali-like director (a seductive Vincent Cassel) whose manipulations border on sexual and emotional sadism.

The tightly wound dancer begins to unravel under the stressors of both preparations, and expectations, to say nothing of jealous and competitive peers. She is driven to the brink of madness, as she tries to achieve both the technical perfection and the emotional depth and passion required to completely evince the duality of the role.

Arnofsky plays an interesting game with perception and reality in a portrayal of a discipline that is surreal to begin with. The film is told almost completely from the point-of-view of Portman's character and her increasingly intense emotional state affects our perception of the people surrounding her. Is it drugs? Is it a dream? Is it insanity? Or is it just a great performer surrendering fully to the heightened state necessary to play a great dramatic role?

I felt the "hot" lesbian sex was just a way to get straight men to see a film about about ballet and the swan-morphing went too far: come on, webbed feet?

However, a film this passionatly intense, beautifully shot and brilliantly acted is a rare treat. The costumes by Rodarte are perfection.

The film's misssteps are more than compensated for by its pleasures. Get there early if you want a good seat.

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