Having not seen The Red ShoesThe CompanyThe Turning Point, or any other Baryshnikov or Aronofsky films except Pi, I don’t want to presume that my thoughts about Black Swan [Darren Aronofsky, 2010] matter.  I usually don’t make haste to see movies with celebrated sequences of eroticism, but this was the interesting kind of cinema eroticism (awkward/ominous/confusing), not the joyful/healthy kind. See the end of this entry for more. First, a few other items that come to mind on the topic of women being jealous and unstable and creative and whatnot.

Inside Daisy Clover [Robert Mulligan, 1965] is a picaresque, tomboy variation on the Star is Born myth, with Natalie Wood as Daisy and Ruth Gordon as her sainted, crazy mother. The characters are more complex than strictly necessary –especially Daisy herself; her life with her mother and friends is given time to bloom into a memorable setting before the bright lights beckon. The weary, sapphic mother figure isn’t a caricature. Christopher Plummer [I kept thinking it was Ralph Richardson] plays the archetypal svengali, combining megalomania and a robotic need for success. TV actor Robert Redford, whom Miss Wood insisted be cast, has the always-tricky role of the well-known star who can’t be played by an actual well-known star. Obviously he’s perfect for that, with his inaccessible charm. We’re lucky to be in his company, for however long he wants.

The finely drawn quirky characters, and the obvious satire of the glimpses of Daisy’s career [like a musical number that would work if renamed “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”], made me sure it was based on a novel, probably a thoughtful one by Herman Wouk or Budd Schulberg or someone. Turns out the original book was more of a sordid potboiler — author Gavin Lambert [I Never Promised You A Rose GardenThe Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone] enhanced the propriety and chipperness for his screenplay, as well as encrypting the homosexual content. He also incorporates an absolutely epic metaphor or possibly synecdoche, right near the end. What’s the most large-scale piece of symbolism you can imagine, in a “Teen starlet jaded by Hollywood” story? Are you envisioning the actress, after a particularly tumultous betrayal, in a small glass booth surrounded by bored technicians, staring at her innocent self on a giant screen as she tries to re-record her saccharin vocals? Are you? You are? Good work!

The circus is a wacky world

The urgency inherent in the showbiz exposé is here, but it’s not quite the desperate situation where the starlet battles ten dozen other starlets for a part or a magazine cover. When she tells the svengali to take a hike, he’s thoughtful about it. When she’s a star, and she doesn’t bother to show up for the difficult second premiere, it’s not the end of the world. And the final scene is fantastic. Turning on the gas, turning it off, hearing the doorbell, hearing the phone, everything else. Click here for a piece about the locations and studio lots used on Inside Daisy Clover, by someone who hates the movie but loves studio lots.

The Legend of Lylah Clare [Robert Aldrich, 1968] made me angry and led to an uncomfortable question.  What the heck is the point of this movie?  I try to avoid asking that, either because I figure I missed something, or because a movie doesn’t need to have a point. But one reason this film is awful is that it’s so convinced that it’s doing something groundbreaking that it goes nowhere. If we’re supposed to be disturbed by how Elsa Brinkmann has her appearance, demeanor and personality steadily altered to resemble Lylah Clare…well, from the beginning of the film she’s a blank slate except for her obsession with Lylah Clare.  And more to the point, they’re played by the same actress!  It’s reverse stunt casting.  Can we make Kim Novak look so unlike Kim Novak that the audience gapes in astonishment when she becomes Kim Novak?  No, you can’t.

Are we supposed to be horrified by the Hollywood decadence?  As Time pointed out at the time, plenty of other films [e.g. The Carpetbaggers] had done that in a much less mannered way.  Are we supposed to be captivated by the mystery of Lylah Clare’s death?  Well, that’s never resolved.  Aldrich had made the undeniably creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? six years earlier – now Lylah Clare alternates laughable with boring with impossibly overemotional.  26-year-old Roger Ebert agrees.

It’s worth watching the second half to see the requisite Ingenue-is-Finally-Ready-to-be-Introduced-to-the-Public scene and the few scenes leading up to it. Kim Novak II is brought out for the appraisal of a terrifying critic played by Coral Browne [The Killing of Sister George, The Ruling Class, late-in-life marriage to Vincent Price], and for once we don’t know what’s going to happen.

X, Y and Zee [Brian G. Hutton, 1972]

Six years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and four years after Boom!, Elizabeth Taylor is now in a baroquely bad marriage with Michael Caine.  This is a fantastic example of Taylor’s fearlessness in playing someone who is not just unlikeable, but uncharismatic.  Her character here is just an awful woman, like a cosmopolitan version of Bette Midler in Ruthless People.  She knows that everything she gets is by being passive-aggressive, manipulative or irritating, and she hates herself for it.

The husband is a classic Michael Caine character — unemotional, presumably moral, takes orders and makes big decisions in the course of his job [this time an architect]. Thinks most people deserve to be happy, but will never be happy himself until certain people are taken down a peg or two. Those people here are his wife and probably some of her friends. Scenes between Caine and Taylor have improvisatory fire, especially when she runs amok in the bedroom, starting to pack a suitcase or unpack a suitcase or play loud music or whatever annoys him the most.

Susannah York is the perfect quiet woman, and when he has dinner with her and her sons the scene is full of hope and promise.  Everyone who sees this film remembers the outrageously outlandish costumes, and the character played by Margaret Leighton whose alien style and dignity exemplifies the emptiness of “Swinging London”.  Personally I’d never seen a serious movie [except Blow-up] set in this world, so it was enjoyable from beginning to end.  As for the beginning, X, Y and Zee‘s lyrical ping-pong overture is one of cinema’s greatest credit sequences.  And as for the end, this is one of the rare instances of TCM extensively censoring a movie. You can tell that the film won’t end very conclusively, what with the great weariness of the two characters we like and the ineffectuality of Taylor’s character, but there is a climactic scene that either annoyed or offended quite a few critics at the time. Watching it on TCM I only saw the aftermath of that encounter, so I can’t say if it’s satisfying in its true form. Still a fun and worldly picture of emotional carnage.

Here’s a better blog-treatment of X, Y and Zee. Containing a bunch of representative dialogue, something I always appreciate.

Camille Claudel [Bruno Nuytten, 1988] was one of many foreign films on VHS my dad acquired in large eBay lots and gave to me, which then sat around my apartment for years until the pre-moving-out binge of tape-watching which let me know which ones to keep.  The first directorial effort by Bruno Nuytten after two decades as a cinematographer [Manon of the Spring, Possession, Barocco], it stars his romantic partner Isabelle Adjani as the legendary fin-de-siècle sculptress, Laurent Grévill as her sympathetic bourgeois brother, and Gérard Depardieu as celebrity art-factory proprietor Auguste Rodin.  It’s a labor of love, a biopic in which every scene could be shortened, but that’s not a problem.  If you’re interested in a movie about Camille Claudel, don’t you want to take your time and immerse yourself in her meticulously constructed world?  There aren’t going to be any more movies about Camille Claudel, so this three-hour film is basically a valuable historical reference in addition to being a complete emotional picture.

Camille Claudel depicts both genius and madness better than most other films that try.  Here the merging of genius and madness largely comes from other people treating the genius the same way they treat a disturbed person.  And the rational and manipulative Rodin, also prolific and creative but not touched by any spirit, seems almost like a pernicious symbol of capitalism.  This film is entirely about Claudel [and everyone else’s views of her] as much as Black Swan is about Nina. It shows what happens to her — internally and externally — with great objectivity.  She’s not necessarily to be identified with.  She never admits that she needs anyone, except Rodin.  As she is elsewhere, Isabelle Adjani is amazing when it comes to scarily freaking out in a sympathetic way.

By comparison, the far less interesting Artemisia [Agnès Merlet, 1997] idealizes its determined female art prodigy as a symbol of doomed, sexy rebellion.

As for Black Swan, it’s a spectacular cinematic experience for something filmed entirely indoors, seemingly entirely in cuts to and from closeups, and mostly in either tiny or dingy rooms. The sound design is fantastic — the pervasive classical music, the sounds of breathing and exertion, the inexplicable noises that cause unease.  My instinct is to complain about some of the Degrassi-level dialogue, but having seen True Grit the previous night — a movie in which every line is quirkified by 5-15% — I can appreciate the prosaic qualities of a script whose characters are thinking a lot about their inner lives and their bodies and not about how to phrase their thoughts.

There’s a line after Winona Ryder’s retiring ex-ingenue has been lashing out bitterly, when Thomas [Vincent Cassel] tells Nina, “Don’t worry — it’s typical.”  Don’t worry about what?  Typical of whom?

Nina (Natalie Portman) gets an unwelcoming look from Beth (Winona Ryder)

Nina’s home life is so odd and yet so well-organized that it’s clear the actors have in mind her complete psychological history, making her mother’s swings between “I knew you were under too much pressure!” and “I need to put more pressure on you!” plausible. Meanwhile, the thing that makes me want to see it again is that there are so many blurred lines between what’s actually happening and what Nina thinks is happening. Everyone who sees Black Swan will have a different impression of what actually takes place. We see just enough natural interactions among non-Nina characters to get a foothold on reality, and as for the rest, I’d call some scenes 50% real, some as 90% real, some 95% … so what you think is happening always depends on to what degree you take her to be imagining things. This sets it above other psychological thrillers. There aren’t major twists or turns or sudden shifts in perception, just progress through the story. Aronofsky is confident that we’ll care about everything that happens, not just the super-intense moments.

Every character is shallow enough that you know them completely after the first thing they say — but all the acting is great. As for Cassel not being convincing as a genius…it’s not just his clichéd speeches about spontaneity and letting go. His decision to pick Nina is based entirely on his ego, experimenting to see if he alone can bring something out of her that nobody sees.  That’s not a good way to run an organization, and it’s surprising when other characters express deep respect for him.  He sees ballerinas in general as unstable, but he ignores the consequences of that.  And he clearly didn’t learn the message of Nicole Holofcener’s films (Please Give, Friends with Money), that if someone is basically a miserable person who doesn’t enjoy the company of others, it’ll be hard for her to make others happy [unless she can give them money].

[Black Swan picture stolen from Demeter Clarc]