I hate what I am about to do, but it is the only way to begin to critique a film like this.
I am going to quote the last line of the film -“It was perfect.”
Usually, when looking for the greatest films, most people tend to choose the visionaries who helped create new frontiers for film. This is not necessarily a film that does that. But it is one that does the basics so well and so brilliantly that they feel fresh. In many ways, this was the perfect film to follow The Wrestler. That film, if you will recall, was about a man in his dying days succumbing to the pressures of his floundering career. This film is about a young artist succumbing to internal pressures at the height of her career. And it is just as successful in accomplishing its goals as The Wrestler was.
The plot…well, the less I say, the larger a favor I am doing for you. Basically, a young ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman) feels like she is given her big break after the star ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) retires and company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) casts her as The Swan Queen in their production of Tchiakovsky’s Swan Lake. Yet Nina feels overwhelmed by the pressures Thomas puts on her and from the competition from the new ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis). She starts succumbing to the pressure and…that is all I will say.
Many people will walk out of the film remember Natalie Portman’s performance. This is understandable (especially considering the obvious physical training that she had to do for the role). But I think Vincent Cassel’s performance may be the most interesting in the film. His character seems to have learned what he knows from the Eric Von Stroheim school of thought. You’ll recall that, during the filming of Greed, Stroheim used to illicit passion from his actors by instructing them to “hate each other as much as you hate me.” Leroy works much the same way. He tries to bring forth characters and performances in his actors by bringing out emotions that he didn’t have. Many watching the film would state that Lily is the villain, but that is not the case. It is Leroy. I would not be surprised if Cassel ends up getting an Oscar nomination for this.
Nor would I be surprised if Natalie Portman actually wins an Oscar. She starts the film as a very meek character that doesn’t talk much. At the end, it actually doesn’t change much. But she does allow for darkness to come through at times, making it that much more shocking when it occurs. Besides, so much of what is happening is suggested by what she doesn’t say, from her constant panic to her sweeping ballet movements. Each suggests a character who is in great pain. It takes talent to suggest things through body language than to just say what is happening. Most people choose the alternate route. It felt far fresher than it should to see someone play with the craft.
I know it sounds like this film succeeds solely because of it’s performances. As with any great film, those are integral to the effect. But Aronofsky includes many hidden tricks that allow the film to truly affect the mind. An interesting touch, for example, is the lack of POV shots. Now, normally, psychological thrillers include a wide variety of them. This sort of gives away what is happening in the character’s mind. Here, the camera always is right behind Nina’s shoulder. This not only gives the film a sort of voyeuristic aesthetic, but one that allows the audience to truly understand Nina’s plight. Audiences cannot tell what is real and what is imagined. Neither can Nina. Again, it is a very basic trick, but it is one that I have not seen in quite some times.
Besides, as with any great film, it is those subtle queues that build up and affect the audiences. It says something when a scene in which Nina’s fingernails are being cut becomes quite traumatic (there are worse scenes of mutilation in the film, both real and imagined). Not only did it allow me to relate to the film at a basic level, but it allows for me to examine broader themes and truly understand how other people think. I have never been an actor, but I talk to them frequently and hear about the nightmares they have right before a show opens. I have never had one myself, but now I at least know what that experience is like.
Wasn’t that one of the primary appeal of films to begin with? To allow people to enter someone else’s mind, however briefly that might be? This film does so better than any other that I have seen this year. And, as it goes into wide release, hopefully more people will be able to experience it for themselves.
One more thing – the trailers before the film were some of the best I have seen all year. I can barely contain my excitement to see The Tree of Life.