by Roderick Conway Morris

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Glimpses into the Pitfalls of Passion

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 3 September 2010


Darren Aronofsky's in-competition movie 'Black Swan' opened the 67th Venice International Film Festival on Wednesday night. Having won the Golden Lion two years ago with 'The Wrestler,' could Mr. Aronofsky repeat the unprecedented double break of Ang Lee, who has twice carried off the top prize, first in 2005 and again in 2007? Probably not.

'Black Swan' takes us into the ballet world and explores the huge physical and emotional demands it makes on a star performer. So, Powell and Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes' revisited? Not quite. 'The Red Shoes' was, of course, inspired by a fairy tale, a story full of colorful fantasy, set in a sophisticated, glamorous, international world of grand hotels and limousines, tracing the trajectory of a prima ballerina at the height of her career spiraling toward a tragic end.

'Black Swan' is not about a prima ballerina, but an aspiring one, who travels on the New York subway and commutes to and from a cluttered and cramped apartment she lives in with her mother. Nina (Natalie Portman) is picked out of the corps de ballet to replace the previous in-house star Beth (Winona Ryder), who has been rather brutally traded in by the sexual-predator who is the director of the ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), for a younger, fitter, sleeker model to lead in the season's opening production, 'Swan Lake.'

Thomas sees Nina as ideal for the role of the White Swan in Tchaikovksy's ballet - technically she cannot be faulted as a dancer - but he has doubts as to whether she can rise emotionally to the task of conveying the necessary seductive malevolence of the Black Swan.

Much of the film takes place not on the stage, but in the rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms and corridors in the bowels of the theater. These settings are very effectively used in the darkly contrasted monochrome design and cinematography of the film, conveying the claustrophobic life of an institution that seems as glamour-free as ancient Spartan barracks.

Home life for Nina is no picnic either. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a former dancer who cultivates the myth that she has sacrificed her own career for the sake of her daughter, through whom she is now living an entirely vicarious life. But emotionally immature, vulnerable and sexually repressed Nina, in her obsessive determination to dance the part of the Swan Queen, is driven more and more to challenge her mother's sinisterly stifling and intrusive control.

Nina's insecurities intensify when a new ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), arrives from San Francisco. Sassy, worldly-wise, promiscuous, a rule-breaker, Lily catches the eye of Thomas as a possible natural candidate for the Black Swan role. So the rivalry between the two dancers - or at least Nina's perception of rivalry - begins to take on dangerous proportions.

The movie is billed as a psychological thriller but the psychology is as monochrome as the settings and characterization. There are scenes of masturbation and sapphic sex, which are sure to get the movie talked about. The cast is dominated by women, but the view of them is stereotypical and unflattering, since the principal characters (except perhaps Lily) seem paranoid, hysterical, underhanded or manipulative, if not frankly deranged. And the climax of the film is as inevitable as it is implausible.

After the Sturm und Drang of 'Black Swan,' Tran Anh Hung's 'Norwegian Wood,' also in-competition, provided a complete contrast in tone and pace.

This film's director is also a Golden Lion winner, for 'Cyclo' in 1995. His production is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's 1987 novel, 'Norwegian Wood,' which sold 10 million copies in Japan and has been translated into more than 30 languages.

The narrative, set in the 1960s, was described by Mr. Murakami in his postscript to the first edition as 'a love story,' but it is also as much about loss, mourning and memory. Mr. Murakami became closely involved with the making of the film, providing dialogue that is not in the novel and contributing extensive notes for the script.

Nonetheless, the Vietnamese-born director regards his film as a tribute to the original book and hopes that it will send another generation of readers to it.

Naoko and Kizuki are childhood sweethearts and they become an inseparable trio with Kizuki's best friend, Watanabe, during their Kobe school days. But Kizuki commits suicide at the age of 17 for seemingly inexplicable reasons and Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) moves to Tokyo to study and try to build a new life.

One day Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) turns up unexpectedly and the two briefly become lovers before Naoko suddenly disappears. Unable to overcome her grief at the loss of Kizuki, Naoko has taken refuge in a rural mental institution outside Kyoto.

Watanabe tries to remain faithful to Naoko, but in the meantime another young student comes into his life, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who in stark contrast to the more traditionally shy and reserved Naoko, is confident and outgoing. At this point Watanabe finds himself caught between two women, both making very different demands on him and forcing him to examine his life and future.

Although the director does not speak Japanese, he believed it was essential to make the film in that country, both on account of 'the uniquely Japanese culture and sensibility palpable in the book' and because the landscapes of grasslands, woods and wild seashore - where, in Tran Anh Hung's words, 'beauty and suffering co-exist' - play such an important part as corresponding expressions of human emotion.

Considering his lack of the language, he has directed his outstandingly well-cast group of young Japanese actors with skill and delicacy.

The period 1960s detail is convincing but discreetly unobtrusive. The landscapes as they pass through the seasons are majestically shot and the story, enlivened by fugitive moments of humor, is a poignant one.

But if the running time of nearly two and a quarter hours were reduced, the intensity of the experience might be increased.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024