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Portman finds beauty in tragedy in Aronofsky’s bizarre “Black Swan”

Natalie Portman embraces the demons of an unstable prima ballerina in "Black Swan."

“Black Swan,” like no other film released in 2010, is a tale full of sound and fury. It does not, however, signify nothing. The opposite is true — Darren Aronofsky’s strange, alluring beast of a motion picture has a number of grand purposes. It’s a melodrama with operatic peaks and valleys, a horror film nearly Gothic in its excess, an arty psychological thriller, a grim character study. Two things secure these many threads together: Natalie Portman’s astonishing performance and Aronofsky’s vision. The director places complete faith in her ability to dissolve herself into not one but two difficult characters. Portman does it so splendidly at times that her own sanity seems in peril.

That’s the kind of performance Aronofsky demands of his actors — total immersion, no excuses. In her own way, as mentally unstable ballerina Nina Sayers Portman goes just as far as Ellen Burstyn did in “Requiem for a Dream.” Both women have lost whatever pitiful coping mechanisms they had. In Nina’s case, it is not drugs that cause her complete break with reality; instead, it is a combination of people and their conflicting demands that turn a hairline fracture into a full-blown spiderweb of fissures ready to shatter. There is her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, deserving of many awards), a domineering, creepy figure living vicariously through her daughter’s successes and failures. She hovers in a way that is suffocating and frightening. No less creepy is Thomas (Vincent Cassel, sublimely sleazy), the company director who beds his stars and fancies himself a revolutionary brilliant enough to reinvent a classic like “Swan Lake.” A textbook cad, he’s cast Nina as his new little princess, the Swan Queen in his pared-down production of “Swan Lake.” He sees the frail, virginal White Swan in Nina’s every move; what he wants is to push his meek ingénue into darker realms, where she can unearth the seductive, evil Black Swan within. Adding still more pressure is competitor Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer with a natural sensuality Thomas finds perfect for the Black Swan, and Beth (a near-unrecognizable Winona Ryder), the alcoholic has-been replaced by Nina as Thomas’ pet, and possibly his lover.

Told straight-forward or even ever-so-slightly skewed, “Black Swan” would be a worthwhile film, even a compelling one. But Aronofsky, with his affection for shuffling and reshuffling the prisms of reality on his characters, rarely cottons to linear storytelling. “Black Swan” is structured in such a way that the one thing Nina can never be sure of — the one thing the audience can never be sure of — is what is real and what is imagined. Is Nina beginning to sprout feathers from her shoulders and under her fingernails? Is Lily her enemy, her friend, or a representation of the darker impulses, the primal needs Nina represses? It’s a road Aronofsky fans know well, but his gift is that he makes every it feel new and personal and harrowing every time. The deeper into the Swan Queen role Nina goes, the more frequent and ghoulish her visions become. Eventually, it’s not possible to tell where the visions end and the real life begins. They could be one and the same; the film’s merging of reality and dreams/hallucinations/visions is a frenzied metaphor for the crash course Nina’s conscious and subconscious mind are set on. As she gives in to the chaos, lets go of her desire for perfection and her need for order, so must the audience. It’s the only way to accept a work like “Black Swan,” where the drama is played — in Clint Mansell’s bombastic score and the alternately sweeping/claustrophic cinematography — past the 10s. 

This may be the very personal story of one woman’s descent into madness (and, some might argue, a complete artistic breakthrough), but it has the timeless, universal feel of a Greek tragedy. Portman manages what few actresses could: to show not just the horror of this meltdown, but the beauty in it too. 

Grade: A

Groovers and Mobsters Present: The Dark Comedy

Horace Walpole had an enduring observation about the world, calling it “a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Who says it can’t be both at once? Certainly not the writers, directors, producers and stars of films that fall into the grimace-with-laughter dark comedy genre. From the emotionally violent to the downright macabre, dark comedies buff a funny and acidic sheen on the devastating realities of everyday life. Read on to discover how “Heathers” accomplishes this, and visit the Movie Mobsters site for a complete list of must-see dark comedies.

“Heathers” (1988)

“Your society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.” ~~J.D.

Back in the 1980s, there was a clown car-esque release of movies about teens — their dweeby friends, their terminally unhip parents, their Saturday detentions, their proms and (most important) their neverending quest for carnal treasure. Then came Michael Lehmann’s vicious “Heathers” in 1988, which hammered a croquet mallet on the clichés and the squishy afterschool love-ins that came before. The film leveled an unblinking eye at the quick-n-dirty politics of high school as well as the obliviousness of the adults in charge and, in the process, became the standard not just for dark comedies but for all future teen comedies, too.

The teens in “Heathers” have adapted to the unspoken Darwinian laws of high school. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) rules her clique of yes women – fearful Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), bubbleheaded Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Veronica (Winona Ryder), a precocious student of human nature – with such ferocity that the likes of Pol Pot would bow before her. No one dares to question her authority until shake-up-the-establishment loner J.D. (Christian Slater) pops onto the radar. Not one to become any dictator’s collateral damage, he draws Veronica in his plot to murder Westerburg High’s aristocracy and make their deaths look like scandalous suicides. Soon Veronica’s “teen-angst bullshit” begins to amass a formidable body count.

Commonly labeled as a “teen movie” (and it is a stellar one), “Heathers” is, above all else, a spot-on dark comedy that spins stereotypes into macabre yet revealing jokes. Dark comedies, be they sneaky and subtle or bloody, are meant to shine unwelcome light on the twisted inner workings of human nature and society. They are meant to be fearless. In “Heathers,” scriptwriter Daniel Waters mercilessly skewers the fluffy clichés to get at the mean, cold truths about high school. Societal satires don’t come gutsier or smarter than this. Waters presents all the usual suspects – the fat girl, the lone wolf, the jock – in their natural habitat with a kind of ruthlessness not seen before in movies about teen-agers. Every offhand observation, particularly Veronica’s “She’s my best friend. God, I hate her,” is blisteringly and hilariously accurate. But these aren’t the belly laughs dumb comedy serves up; no, these laughs lump in your throat because it’s all truth and no artificial sweetener. That’s the kind of truth you need a Slushie to wash down.

 

No. 19: “Heathers” (1989)

“It’s one thing to want someone out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer.” ~~Veronica Sawyer

“Hell is a teenage girl.” It’s inconceivable that Diablo Cody, when she penned that line for “Jennifer’s Body,” didn’t have visions of Daniel Waters’ caustic high school satire “Heathers” dancing in her head. With “Heathers,” Waters did nothing if not create teen black comedies as we know them, spawning scads of wannabes and copycats. None have reached such dizzying and brutally comic heights. Pause and ponder, though — is that such a shock? With its inventive one-liners, shrewd observations of high school and its million pecking orders and outstanding characters, “Heathers” didn’t set the standard; it became the standard.

Exactly how “Heathers” did that lies in smart, calculated execution of a very familiar and universal setting: high school. Ohio’s Westerburg High School is a medieval torture chamber for students not popular enough to register on Heather Chandler’s (a snarling-good Kim Walker) radar. And considering that the ubercool Chandler is essentially Idi Amin in off-white tights, that’s everyone except timid Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), ditzy Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and brainy Veronica (Winona Ryder), the mute devotees who populate her social circle. Though all live in fear of Heather’s wrath (“I’m worshiped at Westerburg and I’m only a junior,” she observes astutely), only Veronica musters the courage to rebel — indirectly by dating precocious loner J.D. (Christian Slater) and more openly by challenging Heather at a college party (the iconic “lick it up” clip). Fed up with Heather’s reign, Veronica goes along with J.D.’s “fake” plan to murder her best friend/worst enemy (“same difference,” she notes) using a cup of liquid drainer. But something goes wrong, and Heather’s off to the afterlife, presumably to take over, leaving Veronica in need of a cover story. J.D. obliges so quickly and readily we wonder how long he’s been plotting this, then dreams up more deadly schemes. Waters pulls no punches with J.D., who comes off not as a harmless misfit but as a perceptive, smooth-talking sociopath with murder on the brain. He can coerce Veronica to do his bidding because he’s that cunning.

That take-no-prisoners attitude extends to every aspect of “Heathers,” really. Whether he’s an ex-nerd with a vendetta or simply an imaginative writer with a flair for satire, Waters is vicious in his treatment of Westerburg’s elite, particularly Heather Chandler, and Heather Duke (Doherty’s enthusiasm is perversely infectious), who treats her leader’s death as a stepping stone to her own coronation. Waters writes both Heathers as ruthless bitches, but with hints of depth. There’s a throwaway scene early on where Chandler stares down her reflection in the mirror; somehow, she looks worn down by the duties attached to her position. When she dies, Duke steps in without pause. Can we blame her? She’s running on years of insults and sublimated rage. Her ascension is a reminder that the tease of power turns the meekest of souls bad — an ’80s retool of, like, that whole “absolute power” warning.

Waters tosses some hate grenades, too, at Westerburg’s administrators, all as clueless as the ruling Heathers are evil. The principal (John Ingle) couldn’t care less about the students’ grief; his only concern is figuring out appropriate grief timetables. The P.C. guidance counselor (Pauline Fleming) goes the opposite route: She stages pointless, hand-holding love-ins in the cafeteria while never once offering real solace. Everyone’s so self-absorbed that no one notices how phony the suicides are, or pays attention to the students in real pain, like overweight loner Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn). Only Veronica, played with quippy horror by Ryder, and J.D. (this was back when Christian Slater really wanted to be James Dean), see through the B.S. Waters skewers the administrators to show the truth: They’re not in charge, and they’re too dumb to notice.

Though he’s since fallen from grace (the hideous “Sex and Death 101”), “Heathers” proved that for one moment, Waters understood the nature of high school better than anyone. J.D. calls Westerburg “a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.” That’s wicked-deep. Anybody feel like a Slushie?