Toronto International Film Festival 2010: Black Swan, Never Let Me Go, The Four Times
I felt a bit light-headed after exiting Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan this morning, although part of that may have been due to not eating much breakfast. (I'm one day in and already a mess.) In any case, this aggressive, entertaining psychodrama is already one of the fest's biggest argument-starters, and it's not as though those of us who like it can talk up its originality. Essentially, it's an amalgam of The Red Shoes and Repulsion, with a dash of Showgirls thrown in, starring Portman as a ballet dancer encouraged by her Satanic director (Vincent Cassel) to say to hell with precision and really lose herself in the lead role of Swan Lake. It's a bit of a cliché, sure, and it starts off in drab, icy digital style that initially makes the storytelling seem as stilted as the main character. But as Portman's Nina peels back her layers—the movie throws her modern equivalent of a psychological makeover, having her hit the bar scene and drop some pills—Aronofsky pulls out the stops, with great use of doubling, mirrors, shadows and other sorts of rudimentary cinematic magic. As foils, Portman is given not one but two Gina Gershons—Mila Kunis as Nina's understudy and Winona Ryder as an aging ballet dancer.
It's tempting—but probably too cute by half—to read the movie as a metaphor for Aronofsky's own filmmaking career, which so far has been divided between his total abandon on films like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain and his more controlled, widely admired work in The Wrestler. But it's propped up by suspense, beauty and conviction. Portman has never been better-used: What in the past has sometimes seemed like a chilly reserve in her characters is perfectly suited to the role of someone who's trained as a technician, largely been cut off from social interaction—and who then has to reach down to her core and prove herself (as Portman does with some actual, highly frenzied dancing).
So yeah, if Black Swan sometimes dips into Showgirls-like hysteria, today is respectability-is-overrated day. (See also: Ben Affleck's The Town, which redeems ho-hum heist-plot material with terrific acting and character detail—at least until it takes a wrong turn at Fenway Park. Full review next week.) At the opposite end of my Friday was the ultra-respectable Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek's well-trailered adaptation of Kashuo Ishiguro's prizewinning novel. Unfortunately, this is another case in which a very fine book has been denuded of its richness, leaving only dull Oscar bait in its wake. My feeling that the movie really needed to spend more time with the characters as schoolchildren, as the novel does, for us to understand what's at stake. That would have helped vary the tone a bit, too, since only headmistress Charlotte Rampling and kindly teacher Sally Hawkins briefly manage to defibrillate the thing.
A vastly superior movie about the transience of life is Michelangelo Frammartino's The Four Times (shown at other festivals under its original title, Le Quattro Volte), which suggests a cross between Brueghel and Jacques Tati. Filmed in Calabria, it at times seems as though it might as well be set in the Middle Ages—and yet it's quite funny as well. Reportedly inspired by Pythagoras's theories on transmigration of souls, it observes the life cycles of shepherds, animals and trees, blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, painting and film, and comedy and metaphysical allegory until they come to seem utterly irrelevant. It's a film that really forces you to consider questions of tradition and transience, a description that makes it sound deadly and philosophical. It's somehow also as light as the smoke that wafts in the breeze as the movie opens. When you're stuck in theaters all day, the great outdoors never seem more vivid than that.