‘Black Swan’: Slow Boat to Coda

Black SwanOscar season is always a stressful time for me because that’s when the official You-Must-See-These-Movies list comes out for me to start checking off. I rarely get through the entire Best Picture list and it’s become even more difficult ever since they expanded that list from five to ten contenders.

More often than not, the movies that I end up picking from the list turn out to be artsy duds that I just don’t get. The Hurt Locker? Crash? Munich? I know a lot of people loved these films but I sure didn’t. I felt like they were trying too hard or something. My one comfort is that my counterpart agreed with me on all three.

Hype has a lot to do with it. I go in with high expectations and when I’m not utterly KABOOMED out of the water, I feel let down. Black Swan was another disappointment, but not nearly in the same way as the others, since the mood and passion of it stayed with me until the next day. It still wasn’t as fantastic as I’d been expecting, but I attribute this to my lack of interest in ballet.

The story revolves around Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, who is a struggling ballet dancer for a New York ballet company. She lives with her mother and is quite clearly obsessed with being the perfect ballet dancer. The director of the company, Thomas, announces that they will produce Swan Lake the following season and that their former star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) will be retiring, thus requiring a new Swan Queen.

I’d gone into this movie after seeing the trailer and not knowing what the hell it was really about, but it turns out the trailer really does explain what the movie is about, which is a tortured artist striving so hard for perfection that she drives herself into madness. I think what confused me so much from the trailer was that I didn’t really see how this made for a terribly interesting story and therefore assumed there was much more to it.

Nina tries out for the Swan Queen role, but as she’s trying to gain the attention of Thomas with her Black Swan, she’s rudely interrupted by newcomer Lily slamming the door. Taking her permanently fixed distraught face down to Thomas’ office the next day, Nina tries to ask for the part, but chickens out at the last second. Suddenly, Thomas kisses her and Nina bites his lip. This unexpected act of passion ends up landing her the role of Swan Queen.

Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey, is downright smothering and it becomes obvious that she’s made Nina the perfectionist that she is by channeling her own lost career through her daughter, who is the cause of her lost career in the first place. By now, Nina’s tragically frowning face is getting a bit old, but with a mother like that one can understand where it comes from.

Black SwanAs expected, Thomas has a reputation for being a lecherous touchy feely guy and you’re always waiting for him to spring that on her past the kiss in his office, but never really see it come to light through Nina’s consciousness. Lily continues to try to befriend Lily and suddenly the movie takes a swerve onto the lesbian offramp.

Not knowing much about ballet, it was hard for me to fully appreciate what was going on, but the fantastic score and the obvious dedication by Portman to learn how to dance forced me to acknowledge the power behind her performance. Much like Nina’s journey through her relentless rehearsals to attain the perfect performance for both White and Black swans, the movie finally moves past it’s teasingly slow pace and furiously climaxes as opening night progresses.

Although it didn’t knock my socks off as I had come to expect from the rave reviews, Black Swan simmered in my mind and slowly became better the more I thought about its many components coming together as a whole. My husband was quite unhappy that it turned out to be exactly what he thought it might be about: a movie about ballet. However, in his words, “There was a lot of Natalie Portman masturbation, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.”

Final verdict: I’d probably rent it and watch it on my own simply to hear the score again as I’ve always appreciated great music in movies. I just wish it didn’t take so long to get good. That aside, this Oscar contender doesn’t need to take a seat next to the other inhabitants of my Dud List. If you can appreciate performing arts, you’ll definitely get something more out of it than someone like me who is just going in expecting a great watch.

And yes, I had to do research to learn the word ‘coda’.

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