Saturday, February 19, 2011

Seeing 'black' and 'blue'

Darren Aronofsky's “Black Swan” is deeply disturbing, but not because of graphic imagery, although there are some unsetting visuals. Much like Aronofsky's first two films, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” this is a film about a descent into madness that doesn't go for cheap thrills. This is a true psychological thriller that builds an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that crescendos into a final moment that is like a punch to the stomach.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a ballet dancer who gets the lead in a production of "Swan Lake." It is a dual role, and, while she is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan, her director (Vincent Cassel) finds her lacking as the darker Black Swan. Her struggle to play the role begins to fracture her sense of reality.

Nina is deeply sexually repressed and lives with an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) who has pushed perfection on her daughter. These two issues come into direct conflict as Nina searches for how to play the Black Swan. Nina becomes obsessed with being perfect and the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin explores how far is too far in the pursuit of great art.

There is a much talked about sexual encounter between Portman and Mila Kunis as a fellow dancer and potential rival. This isn't a gratuitous sex scene and isn't likely to titillate because in context there is an uneasy tension that turns nightmarish. The awakening of Nina's sexuality is key to the character's unraveling.

The film is up for five Oscars include best picture, best director and best actress for Portman. It would be a massive upset if she didn't get the award. Portman's Nina is a performer who ultimately loses herself to a character she must betray. It is easy to imagine that Portman had to be careful to not have life imitate art because her performance is exposed, raw and pushes things to the limit.


As the title implies, “Blue Valentine” is not a sunny look at love. This is an often painfully honest and realistic look at relationships. It is a film that shows both the good and the bad, but also just the routine — the little details that build to the big problems that can end a relationship.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling stars as a married couple with a young daughter. Williams' Cindy is a nurse and Gosling's Dean is a high school dropout who works as a painter. The marriage is clearly stagnated. Dean is oblivious, but it is obviously wearing on Cindy.

The film bounces back and forth between the present and flashbacks of when they first met and fell in love. We are shown the beginning and the end of the relationship. The how and why behind the disintegration of the relationship are left out.

It would seem like the film's essential drama is missing, but the film works because of the striking juxtaposition of the early days of the relationship with the current situation. It isn't hard to imagine how things got the way they did. The characters are drawn so realistically and recognizably that it is easy for the audience to fill in the blanks.

Much of the film was improvised and both actors are so naturalistic that it creates situations that feel authentic. Scenes of their first date have all the awkwardness of a first encounter, but also the sense of attraction and flirtation. What rings even more true are the quiet confrontations that mask bigger issues that inevitably come to a head. To the film's credit, neither person in the relationship is vilified. Williams isn't made into an angelic nurse and Gosling doesn't become a deadbeat alcoholic wife beater. Both characters are flawed individuals.

Williams received an Oscar nomination for her work and it is very good, but Gosling may be better. He creates two distinct versions of Dean, and, while the younger version was hardly perfect, we are sad to see what the older version has become: a good person who had potential, but wasted it and regressed to an infantile version of himself.

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