Black Swan (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Darren Aronofsky
Who makes crazier art movies — about more agonized characters, trapped in more nightmarish fixes — than Darren Aronofsky? David Lynch, Bong Joon-ho and Roman Polanski, maybe — but precious few others. A specialist in tales of the brilliantly sick and the sickishly brilliant, Aronofsky has spun, with disorienting intensity, barmy movie stories of a crazed math genius going nuts on the stock market (in Pi), of a family of lower depths junkies and pill-poppers flipping out together (author Hubert Selby Jr‘s Requiem for a Dream), and of a battered, beaten-down over-the-hill old wrestler putting himself through hell for one last fight in a world falling apart around him (The Wrestler.)
In The Fountain, Aronofsky’s whole universe went bonkers, in segments. And in his latest movie, the justly hailed but occasionally (understandably) ridiculed dance melodrama Black Swan, this unbraked chronicler of mad lives charts the psychological disintegration of a young, ambitious New York ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman with ferocious dedication), who’s been given the dream lead role of the swan princess of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at Lincoln Center and promptly — what else in a Darren Aronofsky film? — goes over the edge into some kind of madness, as well as, apparently, self-mutilation, paranoid fantasies and sexual hysteria.
As we watch, Nina whirls and leaps and goes delusional — and the camera seems to whirl and leap and go delusional along with her, executing wild leaps and dizzying spins, diving and pouncing and peeking over her shoulder, Polanski-like, wherever she goes. When the ballet company’s seductive bully of a master choreographer, Thomas Leroy (played by French star Vincent Cassell, as a kind of sexy, sadistic mindfucker and puppet-master) casts Nina as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, replacing his former prima ballerina, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder, who plays Beth like a mad, self-destructive witch) — he’s simultaneously anointing her, and hurling her into hell.
When he tells Nina she‘s ideal casting for half the part (the role of the pure white swan) but not the other half (the wicked black swan), he’s dropping her into an inferno of nightmares, hurling a dart at the splintering psyche we glimpse beneath Nina’s Persona-like, beautiful, introverted face. (And the guy thought he was just helping her figure out the part!)
Aronofsky bombards us with Nina’s fears and desires, in scenes of dreamily voluptuous terror. The ballet studio and stage become arenas of paranoia. (When she practices in the studio alone, she’s suddenly drenched in darkness.) So does her home, an art-cluttered Manhattan apartment she shares with her painter mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).
Stricken with fear, Nina tears and rips at her own flesh, on her shoulder blades, her hands, near her cuticles — and then the cuts are mysteriously healed. She‘s flung into predatory sexual escapades or fantasies, involving Thomas, and her main rival, Lilly (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas says is the perfect Black Swan, and who (seemingly) dives between Nina’s legs one night, after an uncharacteristic girls‘ night out — a fling which Lilly then denies. (“You fantasized about me? Was I good?” she asks delightedly.)
As the fantasies (?) rage, Nina becomes ill, is berated by Thomas, attacked by Beth, played for a fool (maybe) by her rival Lilly, bossed by her devoted yet domineering mother. She suffers agonies of self-doubt (thanks to Thomas), who tries to bring her out of herself (he says) by recommending masturbation as part of her regimen, then by jumping her bones, by kissing her and howling when she bites him (which is pretty much what he wanted). Lilly plays the part of seductress/rival/immoral friend, the earthy black swan against Nina’s ethereal white.
Amidst this accelerating chaos, the beauty and classicism and first night of Swan Lake (modernized by Thomas, of course) looms.
I acted a lot in college, and there’s a dream about the theater I had over and over. I‘ll bet lots of you have had it too, though maybe involving a looming school test instead. The show has started, I haven’t learned my lines, and suddenly I’m pushed on stage before a full house. (Playwright Christopher Durang exploits a similar fantasy in one of his plays.) But these nightmares in Black Swan, concocted by Aronofsky and his co-writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz (original story) and John McLaughlin, I must say, are worse, scarier — like being thrown on stage when you’re not yet ready and when you’re also clawing yourself to bloody shreds and being pursued by devils.
We all know dancers suffer, actors suffer, writers suffer, artists suffer. (Hell, everybody suffers a bit, except maybe the upper tax brackets guys, but artists maybe suffer more, because it’s part of their metier.) Yet Portman’s Nina — who sleeps (and, in one memorable scene, masturbates) in a doll-strewn and teddy bear-packed bedroom and who claims she’s not a virgin (we don’t believe her) — goes through such intense suffering that, though possibly self-inflicted, it seems punishment enough for orgies of sin, and not just with Mila Kunis.
But how much of this is really happening? Is there really a theater, really a company, even really a white and black swan? All of the main characters seem to have parallel lives in the ballet; the cast list seems to give them all, dancers or not, separate ballet character identities. We know some it is real, some of it a dream, some of it fears made flesh. But we can never be too sure which is which. That’s what makes the movie so interesting.
It hovers on camp, of course. More than hovers: it swoops and circles.
Ballet films sometimes seem to bring out the mad poet in some filmmakers. Ben Hecht’s Specter of the Rose, with Judith Anderson and the grandly hammy Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton) grafts murder mystery and psycho-thriller onto the world of classical ballet. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a phantasmagorical operetta-ballet out of Offenbach’s supernatural Tales of Hoffman. The most famous (and best) of them all, almost everyone’s favorite (mine too) was Powell and Pressburger’s great, rhapsodically loony and magically colorful The Red Shoes, in which Moira Shearer’s Vicky suffered too, though at the hand of a tyrannical Diaghilev-like impresario (Anton Walbrook) rather than a horny star choreographer and inner demons.
The Red Shoes, a touchstone film for young dancers-to-be, is the picture whose spellbinding Hans Christian Andersen Red Shoes ballet scene inspired Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris ballet, which inspired all the others. It‘s a much better film than Black Swan — a movie that sometimes suggests a psychotic version of The Red Shoes directed by Roman Polanski, with a hand from Bob Fosse and Dario Argento.
It’s not really a horror movie, but it’s more horrific than many that are. Black Swan immerses you in paranoia, but it doesn’t really convince you of anything, not even at times that Tchaikovsky really wrote Swan Lake. (Wasn’t it Ennis Morricone, plus Georges Deere?) But the movie hooks you, rakes the flesh of your imagination, even if it doesn’t put wings in the scars on your shoulder blades.
The production design (by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski) is dreamily swank. The camerawork is mobile and sometimes even frenzied. (Matthew Libatique is the cinematographer.) I can understand the knocks, but I was never less than entertained, and I was often more than edgy.
Some people hate The Red Shoes too. (My late ex-girlfriend, Marji, who looked a lot like Moira Shearer, despised Red Shoes as much as she loved Blade Runner and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — and maybe it was because people kept telling her she looked like Moira Shearer.)
And, like Red Shoes, Black Swan is a movie that seems to adore art and creativity. But it also seems terrified of both, scared silly of the worlds they open up. It puts us deep inside Nina’s psyche, and that’s not a nice place to be.
Just like the magical red ballet shoes that carry Vicky up and over the balustrade and to the train tracks below, Black Swan’s vision of dance and art is hard to take, madly over the top. But Natalie Portman (who was doubled in some dance scenes) is often madly impressive; Portman plays and dances with fierce, almost trance-like fervor, letting the nightmares pull her (and us) under.
Cassell, Kunis and Ryder are fine, often riveting — and so, I would argue is Hershey, who’s taken abuse from some quarters. I was glad to see her again. She’s a good visual mother-daughter match for Portman, and I even like the character, though Aronofsky may not. We see Erica somewhat as Nina sees her, but Nina is wrong. It’s Nina who maybe has the white and black swan, the angel and devil, in her, set to pounce and pirouette.
Anyway, in the end, it’s not art or artistry that drives you crazy, but the way the world treats the artists it doesn’t exploit. As for the artists themselves, even the mad, selfish ones … They can be angels, even when their hearts hide some darkness, like Nina‘s. As Black Swan rightly suggests, there’s something else to fear: the demons of ambition and jealousy and madness that may dwell within us, always, ready to dance.
I Love You Phillip Morris (Three Stars)
U.S.: Glenn Ficcara & John Requa, 2009
I Love You, Phillip Morris has apparently been on the shelf for a year, and it’s not hard to see why; among other things, Jim Carrey plays a psychopathic criminal named Steven Russell (a character apparently modeled on a real life psychopath). In the film‘s most show stopping scene, we see Steven nude, pumping away in the throes of sex — and then the camera takes in his partner below, male, bearded, while Steven keeps screaming that he’s gay. All I can say is, Jim Carrey may be a well-known old married man, but he sure has movie star cojones. (The bearded guy seemed to think so too.)
They shouldn’t have worried though. This is one of Carrey’s best performances, at least since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and maybe better than that one too. Russell, it seems, was a supposedly good, Christian, Southern “family values” family man who one day discovered he was adopted, found his real mother, was spurned by her, turned bad, became a con artist and phony, and wound up in a Texas jail, where he discovered the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).
From then on, we’re treated to one of the most amazing con-game stories ever put on film, wilder than anything in Nine Queens or The Sting — and (they tell us) true. No more synopsis. (Don’t ask; don’t tell.)
Writer-directors Glenn Ficcara and John Requa, who also wrote Bad Santa and Cats and Dogs, wrote an engrossing story here, and they got primo actors to play it. Watch it.
But is it really true? Really? Well partners, all I can say is that if the authorities are this damned dumb in Texas, maybe they should secede. (Just kidding fellas. Hell, I‘m an old Rio Bravo-Searchers— Duke Wayne fan from way back, and I love Texas. Just not the way Jim Carrey loves Phillip Morris.)