Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Cinematic Black and Blue

Black Swan and Blue Valentine have little to do with each other, but would make a cathartic double-feature, showing tormented people battered by inner contusions. And there's another commonality: the ferociously talented female leads. Natalie Portman never particularly impressed me before Black Swan, so I've been forced to revise my opinion of her; Michelle Williams simply delivers as expected in Blue Valentine alongside co-star Ryan Gosling. The acting on display by both Oscar nominees is grand, artistically subtle, with tensions constantly seething under the surface, as Nina (Portman) battles inner demons and hallucinations, and Cindy (Williams) an empty marriage. If there was ever justification for giving a joint award for best actress, here it is. I really can't decide between the two.

Black Swan is the psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky, who seems riveted these days by the theme of individuals willing to die for sport or athletic art. But where The Wrestler (2008) was grounded in social reality, Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes, stylistically reminiscent of his earlier work like Requiem for a Dream (2000). Film noir and horror elements blend to convey a sense of inner isolation, as Nina's mind caves under the pressure of a demanding dance instructor -- and at home a suffocating mother -- whereby everyone becomes a threat, especially colleague dancers like Lily. Her body breaks out in sores, lending to bizarre delusions of metamorphosis; her passion for ballet unfolds in irony, as she never even seems to enjoy what she's doing. The initial ecstasy in getting the lead role in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" is short-lived, as neurotic fears pound away at her until she suicides after a climactic stage performance. Along the way something, or everything, is lost. Nina's metamorphosis into the White Swan's evil twin is realized on multiple levels, as her nightmare world tugs her down and she discovers the impulses of "Swan Lake", tragically, mirrored in life.

Blue Valentine is a romance drama directed by newcomer Derek Cianfrance, who hopefully has more gems like this up his sleeve. Romances tend to be hit or miss with me, and Cianfrance nails Cindy and Dean perfectly in every frame. Flashing back and forth between the time they first meet and six years after marriage, the story captures the start and end points of a hopeless relationship begun in puppy love followed by stagnation. As in Black Swan for Nina, something was lost along the way for Cindy, but that something is elusive; it may not be really anything other than a foreordained deterioration into pointless existence and loss of affection for a husband who has no interest in growing professionally or personally. The scene where she tries to enjoy a night out and have sex with Dean, and is revolted by his touch, is the mirror opposite in every way to Nina's energetic lesbian fantasy over Lily: one grossly real, the other wildly arousing; the first an attempt to heal real-life wounds, the other a retreat from reality, each desperately futile. Cindy's tragedy is mundane to the core, the relationship between her and Dean a reflection of too many real-life marriages doomed from the get-go.

Portman and Williams are completely compelling in their roles, and again, I recommend watching them back to back. If neither takes best actress, I'll be threatening black and blues myself.


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