Cinematic Rites of Passage

Cinema, the youngest of the great art forms, has wrestled in its time with defining its own archetypes.  Some have been pilfered from other art forms…literature and theater and opera…your classic Oedipal complexes and hero-worship.  But there is one archetype that has evolved into something purely cinematic.  It’s been there from the earliest days.  We saw it with Dreyer and Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a prototypical materializing of The Director orchestrating The Performance from The Actress.  In its infancy, cinema gleaned from the religious.  After its golden era of youth, as it settled into cynicism and postmodernism, it became more deranged.  Polanski’s Repulsion…Bergman’s Persona…Altman’s 3 Women…Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.  There have been seeds of it planted in horror as well…Argento’s Suspiria…De Palma’s Carrie

We know the characters:  The ingenue dying to land her first big role (Natalie Portman), the fallen star (Winona Ryder), the obsessive mother figure (Barbara Hershey), the psychotic director (Vincent Cassel) and the dark femalien foil to the ingenue (Mila Kunis).  To play these parts…to choreograph this masturbatory madness…it’s become a cinematic rite of passage.  Darren Aronofsky — impregnating the archetype with his own hang-ups — makes his film, his rite of passage about the achievement of perfection.  He’s so comfortable with the archetype that the first spoken words of the film following a fade from black are, “I had the craziest dream last night.”  He closes arrogantly with, “It’s perfection.”  Fade to white. 

Portman speaks both of these lines, and the transformation we witness in between…well…it’s the archetype as we’ve never quite seen it before.  Everything we think we know about the archetype is spun seductively into the mind of The Actress!  Her character and Aronofsky’s camera twirls like a ballerina out of control…but there’s nothing graceless or mad about The Performance.  Portman has us just where she wants us.  She is in complete control at all times.  Never once did I think she lost herself. 

There have only been two roles in Natalie Portman’s career: Mathilda in The Professional and now Nina Sayers in Black Swan.  Everything else in between was practice…even her most interesting roles in Closer and V for Vendetta.  The regal woodenness of her roles in the Star Wars prequels, the tooth-ache inducing cuteness of her performance in Garden State, the numbing histrionics of Brothers, her steadfast determinism off-screen not to be the stereotypical former child actress — these were all necessary stepping-stones.  These were all parts to play…and she combines elements of them all in Nina Sayers.  It is the role Portman was born to play.  Everything — good, bad and in between…on screen and off — has been building to this.  In interviews she may still say, “I’m not sure I want to be an actress.”  But here, under Aronofsky’s perverted eye…SHE. IS. THE. ACTRESS.

Ah, yes…we have it all here.  There’s Ryder writhing, Hershey screeching, Cassel weaseling and Kunis wiping away the stigma of being the voice of Meg Griffin.  Hey, ladies and gentlemen, Mila can act!  Then there’s Aronofsky’ shaky camera, which when sent spinning lends itself surprisingly well to the ballet.  There’s Clint Mansell’s score merging with the music of Tchiakovsky’s Swan Lake.  There are women violently folding into one.  There are limbs metamorphosing into wings.  There’s blood.  There’s sex.  There are fever dreams.  There are nightmares.  There are lucid moments of near perfection. 

There are audiences cheering.  There’s buzz.  There are already references working their way into other forums — witness the hilarious “We’re two Black Swans!” joke in last week’s 30 Rock episode.  There are Oscar ballots soon to be cast.  It’s strange…the archetype has seemingly evolved from art — from something provocative and spoken about only in screaming whispers by cineasts and critics — into something everyone will now recognize.  Will adore.  Will rave about.  Will mock.  Will parody.  With Natalie Portman as Black Swan, the archetype now becomes a part of pop-culture.

Just what does a young woman have to do to get our attention?  Well, Natalie Portman took the drastic route.  Aronofsky was more than willing to lead her.  And we love to watch, even if it we hate ourselves or “it” in the end.

Do we all not enjoy watching this rite of passage?  Is this not entertainment? 

Step right up, ladies.  Whose turn will it be next?

Written by David H. Schleicher

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The following is dedicated to all the blogosphere buzz around Black Swan:

  • Marilyn Ferdinand has an interesting (and not all positive) spin over at Ferdy on Films.
  • Aiden R. once again refreshingly “Cuts the Crap” and reminds us why we all love this archetype and classic cinematic head-trip.
  • A feminist spin on the madness is taking place at The Canonball.
  • Over at Filmic Daniel Montgomery focuses his review on Portman’s physical performance and the tortured mind of her perfectionist Nina.
  • Meanwhile, at Movies Over Matter, Jason Marshall argues it’s Aronofsky’s haphazard direction that almost sinks the ship, while it’s Portman who holds it all together with her most compelling performance.

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11 comments on “Cinematic Rites of Passage

  1. John says:

    A great, GREAT, thought-provoking review. Wonderful.

    Thanks, John! –DHS

  2. Aiden R. says:

    Great write-up, Dave, and thanks for the plug! You might be the only other person I’ve ever talked to that (up until now) has considered Mathilda the highwater mark in Portman’s career. You’re a man after my own heart. Glad you liked it, yet another dinger for Aronofsky.

    Aiden, thanks, man! It was all downhill from Mathilda for Natalie…until now. She’s finally grown up. –DHS

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    I am no fan of this mean-spirired and practically exploitative example of self-indulgence by a director who has impressed me greatly in the past. (THE FOUNTAIN) The comparison with THE RED SHOES -posed in some quarters – are insulting, and the film emplys some well-hones slasher film theatrics. I don’t deny that Portman is up to the task though, and your opening paragraph is one of your real gems. I am aware of the (mostly) favorable reaction to the film, and can only say that I wished I were among them.

    Cliff Lee signing with the Phillies now, in a shocking development?

    Wow. You must really be on Cloud Nine David!

    Sam, it’s funny. Your thoughts on this film mirror mine for Antichrist (which I know you greatly admired). Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I would still enjoy seeing you do a full write-up on this.

    As for the Cliff Lee news – amazing! And also, Scarlett Johansson broke up with Ryan Reynolds, which now means I once again have a chance with her (HA!). So, yes, I am on cloud nine today. –DHS

  4. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H. Schleicher…
    I haven’t watched this film yet, (with “yet” being the operative word) and I probably will wait until it “emerge” on DVD…before placing this film in the thumb(s)-up or thumb(s)-down category.

    [Remember: I really like GR’s Sherlock Holmes 2009 and I know for a fact, that you didn’t like director Guy Ritchie’s film.]

    …By the way, D.H., you can chalk up another reviewer who is in the thumb(s)-up! corner…a fellow blogger, by the name of Eric, who let me feature his writing on my blog.

    Eric Armstrong Over There at The Moving Arts…Review Of The Black Swan

    Thanks, for sharing the links I plan to visit and read each review over the week-end.
    DeeDee 😉 🙂

    DeeDee, thanks for the link. Armstrong’s review was very insightful! And Sherlock Holmes…bah! –DHS

  5. DeeDee says:

    Sam Juliano said, “The comparison with THE RED SHOES -posed in some quarters – are insulting…”

    Sam Juliano, ha! I agree with you, I don’t think there is no comparison
    [It appears as if Powell and Pressburger’s ballerina in the former film had a choice to make and she was torn between the choices.

    On the other hand, it appears as if Aronofsky’s ballerina is dealing with an eternal mental and physical darkness…As I shrug my shoulders (indicating uncertainty…since I have not watched neither film.)

    …and the only reason that I mentioned the film when I posted my writer, Andrew Katsis’ review of this film is the mere fact, that both film feature [Ballerinas.]

    Even though I’am fully aware of the fact, that you weren’t implying that I made the comparison.

    Because I have read several reviews where the comparison was made to Powell and Pressburger’s film “The Red Shoes” in…earnest!

    [Clarification:
    Remember: I really liked G.R’s Sherlock Holmes 2009 and I know for a fact, that you didn’t like director Guy Ritchie’s film.
    Therefore, my feeling about this film may be the opposite of the positive or opposite of the negative reviews or feedback that this film is receiving.

    That is after I view the film…to be quite honest I don’t like to watch films when they are first released in the theatre. (Because there is too much feedback…online and in the media too!)

    By the way, nice movie poster from the film “The Black Swan.”]

    DeeDee – There’s a whole slew of great posters they did up for Black Swan – really creative stuff. The marketing for the film has been top notch on every level. –DHS

  6. DeeDee says:

    [It appears as if Powell and Pressburger’s ballerina in the former film had a choice to make and she was torn between the choices.]
    Oops! I’am so sorry, for mentioning the word “former” because neither film was mentioned beforehand in the conversation.

  7. Probably the most shocking thing about going to see Black Swan was the trailer for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is now finally online. Judge for yourself…but I think it’s worth the hype:

  8. Ted says:

    SPOILER ALERT
    Just wanted to clarify a quote: I believe the film ends with “I felt it…perfect. It was perfect.”

    Enjoyed the review, thanks

    Ted, you might be right. I remember when I saw the film a second time (after already posting this) I thought back to my review and how I may have missed the exact wording. The sentiment is what counts, though, I guess. Thanks for reading! –DHS

  9. CMrok93 says:

    A perfect performance from Portman, and a very very creepy direction, that works so well, ultimately leads this into one of the tense films of the year. Good Review!

    Yeah, I don’t think Portman will deliver another performance like this for a long long time (at least based on her upcoming film choices). –DHS

  10. Prakash says:

    It’s been post-Oscar fever here and all the award-winning movies are releasing here one after the other. “The Fighter” is next in line for me.

    Excellent review. I love your insights on the “archetype” and how Darren Aronofsky has reinvented them.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Black Swan and saw it as an artistic expression of the human-psyche. But definitely not as a “horror” movie as some other reviews have termed it.

    Prakash – I agree. It was more a psychological thriller – not horror. –DHS

  11. M. Katherine says:

    Mathilda was Ms. Portman’s best character by far. What are your thoughts on a sequel to “The Professional”?
    Of course, Mathilda was the only one to survive, so a sequel would be a bit pointless without Leon or Stansfield.
    I think that Ms. Portman is better when she is a bit sarcastic, and a bit of a wild card like Mathilda or Alice, her character in “Closer”.

    M. K – I think a sequel to “The Professional” would be a terrible idea. I agree with you on Portman – Alice probably was her best character apart from Mathilda and Nina Sayers. –DHS

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