Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "Black Swan"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following last week's third installment (2002's "Chicago"), I now present ~

Black Swan 2010 / Dir: Darren Aronofsky

SYNOPSIS: Demure and technically flawless ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) wins the lead role in her company's production of "Swan Lake". Though she is a perfect fit for the virtuous White Swan, her director (Vincent Cassell) doubts that she can pull off the other half of the role, the seductive Black Swan. Nina begins to feel threatened by Lily (Mila Kunis), a less talented but more alluring dancer who embodies Black Swan qualities. Further stymied by her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina feverishly taps into her dark side and begins losing her mind in the process.

When we were kids, my sister K identified certain elements that guarantee a super creepy story. This included evil twins who pretend to be nice, dead evil twins who come back to life, and mirror images that smirk or otherwise behave differently than the person looking in the mirror. All of these pertain to doubles and good/evil dualities. And it's true that no matter how often I encounter such devices, I always get freaked out in the best possible way. "Black Swan" works so well because it's packed with this kind of basic, no-fail horror. Plus, it takes place in the already weird world of ballet.

Bitchfest conflicts are essentially evil twin stories - a good girl and a bad girl, bonded by a common goal (if not an identical physical appearance), are thrust into battle. As I explained in my initial post, the righteous Bitchfest heroine sometimes adopts the antagonist's negative traits in order to defeat her. The process by which the Nina tries to mimic Lily's carefree sexuality is the film's central focus. Going into it, I had misgivings about the marketing label "psychosexual thriller," as if open and unapologetic female sexuality is somehow inherently sinister. Fortunately, that isn't the point at all. The real issue is, what does sex mean to a twenty-something woman who still sleeps in a bed festooned with stuffed animals? The good girl in this scenario is a timebomb of smothered sensuality. She can't even masturbate without worrying that her mother might barge through her lock-less bedroom door. Regardless of how you or I or Lily feel, sex is a murky, uncharted realm for Nina. You quickly realize that this twin conflict is at least as much internal as external, and that the protagonist's unrealized urges are defining the battlefield.

Director Darren Aronofsky expertly yanks the audience into Nina's eerie, insular world and makes you ride sidecar along her troubled journey. The camera is always in her face or behind her head, stalking her down a shadowy hall, spinning as she pirouettes. You really begin to feel that you're inside her mind, though Portman deserves at least as much credit for conveying Nina's point of view. I will consider her all-but-assured Best Actress Oscar well earned, and not just because she became a ballet dancer for the sake of this role. She actually made me forget that she's Movie Star Natalie Portman, whom I generally find annoying. Not to say that Nina isn't annoying - she really is, with her perpetually frightened little girl voice - but feeling your way through her sheltered life is a truly terrifying experience and you can't help longing for her release.

Kunis's Lily is an interesting subversion of the Bitchfest bad girl archetype. It's possible to read the story in such a way that she isn't really a culpable, manipulative Black Swan type, but rather a genuinely concerned friend. Then again, she may be intentionally messing with our heroine, or at least taking advantage of her instability. In any case, Kunis does an excellent job of anchoring the audience to everydayness - if only temporarily - by interjecting some easygoing humor into this unnervingly taut story. Whether or not Lily is actively trying to push her rival over the edge, she generally appears to be the least fucked-up person in Nina's tiny, asphyxiating world.

Erica is just as much of a debilitating force, a stifling superego to Lily's pleasure-seeking id. Her relationship with Nina reminded me of "Carrie". On the surface, Erica is nowhere near as psychotic as Piper Laurie's Margaret White, but the air of sexual repression in her dimly lit home is just as palpable. Instead of screaming about "dirty pillows", Erica submerges her child in a little girl world of music boxes and pink-frosted cake (which she passive-aggressively forces a sickly Nina to eat in celebration of winning the lead role; I found this scene more disturbing than the plentiful gore that occurs throughout the film). MINOR SPOILER ALERT - you learn that Nina's conception marked the abrupt end of her own ballet career. Erica isn't just a stage mom. She is actively holding her daughter in a state of arrested development and kinda trying to sabotage her at the same time.

Even among positive reviews for "Black Swan", the pejorative term I've encountered most frequently is "trashy". I guess that's fair, considering all the ballet-society stereotypes (from Cassel's cruel and lecherous director to Winona Ryder's aging, raging diva, Beth) and especially Portman and Kunis's straight-up soft porn sex scene. But honestly, I love "Black Swan" because it was exactly as trashy as I wanted it to be. While I appreciate the more highbrow elements - Matthew LiBatique's haunting, exquisite cinematography, the excellent use of sound (just the thought of a certain toenail-clipping noise makes me a bit nauseous), and of course the dancing - it's the pairing of Bitchfest story structure with those classic evil twin gimmicks (the above photo is a fine example) that lured me to the theater and kept my eyes glued to the screen. It isn't a unique combo, I know, but I can't think of another film that does it better.

Tune in for the final installment, 1950's "All About Eve"

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