Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our bodies, our selves: Black Swan and 127 Hours

Given the slate of films generating awards season buzz – True Grit, Rabbit Hole, Blue Valentine – it’s shaping up to be quite the winter of our discontent. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, both in its award-baiting allure and its dark restlessness.

Here Natalie Portman plays Nina, a New York City ballerina intent on dancing the lead role in a new version of "Swan Lake." When the company’s one-time darling, Beth (Winona Ryder), is ousted by the director, Thomas (a regal, intimidating Vincent Cassel), an opening is created for Nina to become the ballet’s new star. However, Thomas is insistent that he’s unsure whether the fragile, severe Nina can believably dance both the role of the white swan and the black swan, and his posturing begins to prey on Nina’s greatest psychological fears.

Under the suffocating presence of her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former-ballerina who sacrificed her career for motherhood, Nina lives a sterile focused life committed only to dancing and perfection. Her mother forcibly dotes, dressing and grooming her and watching her every move while she’s in the house. Outside the house, Nina has few, if any, friends. And with the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), the company’s newest dancer, Nina is uncertain whether she’s made a friend or enemy.

What unfolds is a tug-of-war between reality and delusion – we’re often uncertain whether what we’re seeing is really happening, or merely a momentary hallucination or dream concocted by Nina’s fractured psyche. Is everyone out to get her? Or is this simply what she’s convinced herself? In the struggle between black and white, it’s the grey areas that make this film most interesting.

Ultimately, Black Swan may be a story of unadulterated self-sacrifice, though it chooses to trade in moments of horror (sharp objects make a couple of appearances). Where Aronofsky's The Wrestler was a film with heart, Black Swan is motivated by selfish, garish means. If Mickey Rourke’s Randy was a character full of faults and regrets, he was also filled with tenderness and humanity. Those qualities are all seemingly absent from Portman’s Nina, and her struggle is between perfectionism and sanity. It's redemption and failure versus sacrifice and success.

Seeing the trailers for Portman's and Kunis's extremely similar forthcoming romantic comedies, one wonders if the ladies needed a laughable escape from the intensity of Black Swan. (Of course, even if that may be true, it doesn't necessarily make it okay.)


If there’s a film deserving of the “tour de force” label, it would be 127 Hours. Set in the beautiful boulder-filled landscape of eastern Utah, the film almost wholly belongs to James Franco (playing Aron Ralston) and a rock. The true story of one man’s survival by amputating his own arm after getting it caught between a fallen boulder and the side of a canyon, one goes into 127 Hours merely to watch the inevitable unfold.

Shortly after setting out for a weekend of canyoneering, and after an encounter with two 20-something adventurers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), Aron finds himself falling and quickly pinned inside a narrow inlet. He spends the next five days subsisting on the little food and water he has with him and reflecting on the events that have brought him here. Other characters are briefly brought into the picture through flashbacks and images replayed on Aron’s camcorder, but the show belongs to Franco.

Like other one-man pictures (most recently Sam Rockwell in Moon), the burden rests on the lone actor’s shoulders to carry the film, and under Danny Boyle’s (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) direction Franco manages to coax both sympathy and amusement from the audience. It may not be an “entertaining” film (mainly due to the time spent biting one’s lip in anticipation of the deed that must be done), but it’s interesting to watch Franco work as an actor in such literally tight constraints.

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