Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Swan Song

The other night I saw the movie 'Black Swan.' I thought it was brilliant; intense, almost unbearable at times, but eloquent and lyrical in its more ethereal moments. Now, I must mention that I love the ballet and have a subscription to the dance series at the Music Center in Los Angeles. But I did not admire the film for that: indeed, while set against the ballet, it was, essentially, a study of a frail and gifted young woman under enormous, even lethal, pressure. And as such, it succeeded wonderfully.

Natalie Portman's performance was, to my mind, perfect. She did something I have rarely seen an actor do: She hewed her acting style so close to her character that at times her acting seemed flawed. But that was in the nature of the character - a woman so fragile and so delicately balanced on the edge between ambition and insanity that her perception of reality became that of the audience. We identify so closely with her that even her most macabre imaginings become plausible, indeed, inevitable to us. We are with her wholly as she navigates the knife-edge of art and madness. If she does not win the Oscar for leading actress, there is no justice in the world.

Rarely does an actor take such chances. Recently, I saw Forest Whittaker do something similar in his guest appearances on the TV series, 'The Shield.' Playing an internal affairs officer brought in to investigate Vick Mackie's corrupt strike force, Whittaker's acting style was so at odds with that of the strike force members that at first I thought he had made a serious error in judgment. But as his role went on, I realized that he had, in fact, deliberately chosen a style intended to throw off the performances of the closely-knit group, because that was the nature of his character. He had been brought in precisely to disrupt the strike force, and his acting reflected the fact. It was a brave and brilliant choice, and it worked beautifully. (To my amazement, he was not even nominated for an Emmy for his performance.)

In much the same way, Natalie Portman's performance was meant to convey the very delicate inner condition of the ballerina, and with great skill and courage she played her part so near to the edge that the effect is mesmerizing. We rarely have an opportunity to identify so closely with an actor, and feel so intimately the depth and power of the performance. It is for this reason that I say that her performance was perfect - the perfect instrument to realize and incarnate her character.

Additionally, the film is brilliantly directed, well-written, and impeccably edited. Darren Aronofsky made choices just as daring as Natalie Portman's; for example, the persistent use of black, white and grey, the use of sound effects to heighten certain moments and gestures; and the tattoo on the back of the rival dancer, Lily, a pair of skeletal black wings, is so close to the edge as to be outre, if not for the strength of Mila Kunis's portrayal and Aronofsky's vision. There are moments in the film of such horrifying intensity as to rival the most frightening shocks of the best of horror films. At such moments, the audience gasped, and some people had to turn away; a young woman next to me even cried at one point. And yet all of this is in service to a tale of the artistry, rivalry and terrible beauty of the ballet, and the crushing pressure of pressure compounded with insecurity, desire and ambition. 'Black Swan' is an act of sustained vision and courage, containing performances of the greatest boldness, skill, and intense delicacy.