Saturday, December 11, 2010

Various Visions

Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, I felt something I’ve seldom experienced at the movies lately: boredom. To say the least, it’s not what I expected from the film. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, in one of many deliriously positive reviews, called it: “a hotblooded, head-spinning erotic thriller in which director Darren Aronofsky does to ballet what Kanye West does to rap: turns it into his own beautiful dark twisted fantasy.” The movie got a fair number of negative reviews too, but even when people didn’t like it, they usually seemed somewhat fascinated. And there I was, barely even interested.

Black Swan

As noted, it’s set in the ballet world, with Natalie Portman playing Nina, a young dancer who gets her big break in a reworking of Swan Lake. Unable to find the spark to satisfy her director (Vincent Cassel), she becomes increasingly nervous, and maybe unhinged, obsessing in particular over Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer whom she suspects of plotting to take her place. There’s never much possibility of this ending up happily, and sure enough, it doesn’t.

Well, that’s not necessarily true actually. What we see in the final scenes can’t possibly be literal reality – some portion of it must be Nina’s fantasy, or else a pure cinematic reverie – but it’s pretty much up to the individual spectator to decide what to make of it. Of course I have nothing against ambiguous endings – many of my favourite films go there, and they had to, for instance because a traditional closure would contravene their investigative or disruptive intentions. Also, of course, I love the inherent open-ended spirit of inquiry of much modern art. But Black Swan isn’t investigative or disruptive or inquiring: it’s very tightly conceived and executed, a precisely controlled mood piece, unfolding virtually without reference to the real world or real people. It’s not really about anything, beyond how it moves its selected pieces. And if in the end you don’t really know how it actually did move the pieces, then it seems to me the film’s about even less than you already thought.

Fearless Visionary

I guess we just have to conclude it’s not my kind of film. It’s not that I have an inherent aversion to ballet. I watched The Red Shoes (with which Black Swan has an obvious if rather vague kinship) just a few months ago, and I enjoyed Robert Altman’s The Company – a highly focused depiction of life inside Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet – more than most people did. Actually, to my untrained eyes, Black Swan doesn’t evoke ballet itself, or the insular world within which it’s created, with much skill. On the dancing, we see a lot of Nina going through her pained motions, but not much else, and the movie provides little basis for distinguishing the mundane from the supposedly brilliant. As for the broader institution, the film basically depicts an environment where Cassel’s director does whatever he likes, with all other players reduced to faceless lackeys.

But of course Aronofsky – a “fearless visionary” in Travers’ words – is after more than dull verisimilitude. This is where I found the film particularly disappointing. Portman’s performance – widely considered a favourite for the Oscar – may be technically accomplished, but Nina is a dull, repetitive character: infantilized, frigid, repressed, stiff (all of this, it seems, largely the result of an oppressive mother, played by Barbara Hershey in similarly one-note terms), her fragility making her an easy prey for inner and outer wounds. It’s true that the film would feel more limited and conventional if it treated Nina less severely, and Aronofsky keeps the horror genre’s conventional rhythms well at bay. But it seemed to me this only makes the film inert and isolated. Someone being a fearless visionary sounds great, but it doesn’t mean his fearless vision necessarily should be any more important to the rest of us than his fearless holiday beach photos.

Three Art Films

In a sign of that new-world convergence I keep reading about, several of the films having their premieres at the new Bell Lightbox have also turned up almost immediately on SuperChannel, where they continue to play periodically. Being mostly a hermit, I stayed home and watched them all on SuperChannel. None of them are in the “must see” category, but they’re all superior to just about everything else on there (based of course on my highly limited sampling).

The Father Of My Children, directed by Mia Hansen-Love, is the most diverting for film aficionados, depicting a prolific French art house producer who’s stretched himself to the limit and is on the verge of losing everything; halfway through he does, kind of, and then we follow the aftermath. The film is, as they say, very French; it feels fresh and naturalistic, skillful and full of verisimilitude, but very much in the way French films often do. At the end, Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera plays on the soundtrack, less in resignation than to acknowledge the shifting priorities and inevitabilities that mark both art and life - very much the kind of place you’d expect a French film to navigate towards. I don’t mean to mock the film, because it’s very engrossing, but you might wish it embodied more of the main character’s iconoclastic energy, rather than just observing it.

Tales Of The Golden Age is a Romanian anthology film consisting of five segments by five directors; the title refers ironically to the drab days of the Ceaucescu regime, when the stories take place. The film works well enough as an amiable comedy, but again that doesn’t seem like quite enough; the episodes all illustrate minor variations on the same core thing – the absurd bureaucracy, the poignancy of people trying to squeeze out a little pleasure from the system – and in any event, it’s pretty well-established territory by now.

Finally, Vision, directed by the veteran Margarethe von Trotta, tells the story of a 12th century nun; delivered to the order as a child, growing up to be its leader, powered by what she describes as direct inner communications from God. It’s an effective enough addition to von Trotta’s almost four-decade gallery of portraits of women; most satisfying simply as a story of the increasingly righteous Hildegard challenging and sometimes manipulating the prevailing order (the film leaves considerable – and to my earlier point, productive! - ambiguity about what she really experienced or believed). She’s a rather earthbound director though – the film doesn’t ring or ascend as you might feel it should; it could even have used the Aronofsky touch at odd moments (then it might have been called Fearless Vision). On the other hand, maybe it’s better that the erotic resonance of nuns – even more widely evoked in cinema than that of ballet dancers – is off the table here.

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