Two Oscar-nominated comedies: Black Swan & Dogtooth

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If, like me, you’re making your way through the films nominated for Best Picture,still with some hope, I recommend watching Dogtooth and Black Swan back-to-back. In terms of genre, both could be described as experimental comedies which use elements of horror and fantasy; but, probably a large proportion of the audiences for both films did not laugh. I bet the Greeks who submitted Dogtooth to the Oscar committee are laughing their asses off every time they think about it. (Dogtooth is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and the most unlikely Oscar-winner I can imagine.)

Ah, well.

If you don’t find funny that screenshot above of Natalie Portman as the pouty ballerina starring in cough cough Swan Lake then you probably didn’t laugh during Precious, either.

(I’m not going to be mean and post a creepy closeup of Barbara Hershey; but the facial similarities of Mother and Daughter while in makeup are more scary than funny.)

I tried to get a good shot of when Portman’s character, Nina, gathers up her giant pink stuffed animals and stuffs them down the garbage chute. However, I thought that would be a bit obvious. The lesbocious sex scene — lots more female-on-female pleasure shown in that scene than in any scene in The Kids Are All Right, btw — would have been funnier with the bunny.

My problem with Black Swan certainly isn’t Portman — who plays Nina, and the two Swan incarnations, impressively and exactly as she’s supposed to — but rather with director Aronofsky’s inability to decide what his movie is and what it’s doing. It begins as a character study (or rather, it fakes us out that it’s a character study) and then fractures into psychological kitsch similar to the Ellen Burstyn sections of Requiem For A Dream. (Aronofsky should just remake What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? to get all that out of his system.)

While normally I’d admire the refusal to create clear divisions between what is “real” and what’s happening inside a nutty character’s head, in Black Swan it feels more like an attempt to trick — like a gimmick — rather than a commitment or discipline to an aesthetic. I was worn out by the melodramatic back and forth between reality and masochistic fantasy and I got tired of the remaining characters’ losing shape on the edges of Portman’s whirlwind performance. By the time the Black Swan threw herself off a literal and figurative pinnacle in front of her audience not only had I given up trying to figure out what was “really” happening, other than the obvious, I didn’t care anymore. Except for in The Wrestler, Aronofsky has never exhibited the discipline not to break down his story while he’s breaking down his central characters. The ballet itself gives the film its only solid structure and that wasn’t enough for me.

Plus the film just wasn’t that funny and it certainly should have been to be bearable.

Dogtooth, on the other hand, shows the discipline that probably came from lengthy workshopping. Somewhere in Greece, this movie was born as improv, performed by actors with a taste for the sick and absurd. That’s just a guess; but the responses and behaviors of the children prompted the same kind of surprised laughter from me that I experienced when watching good improv in Chicago.

Also, there’s a looseness and a wry self-consciousness flickering on the edge of the performances, particularly of the actors’ playing “the children.” They’re not exactly winking at me but they’re not really playing any sort of traditional character for me to identify with, either.

(On that note, Dogtooth provides a great antidote to the rote characterizations and overacting of a boring slab of hokum like The Fighter. All I can say about that movie is thank fuck for Wahlberg’s patient, relatively calm and ordinary performance; otherwise, I would have been pulling my short hairs out every time Christian Bale’s character opened his mouth or the camera panned once again over the teased hairdos of the coven of sisters.)

The vignettes in Dogtooth resolve consistently funny, no matter how dry and no matter how awful the adult sexual situations get (Real, not faked sex occurs, including some of the most embarrassing and comic heterosexual sex I’ve ever had to watch on film, except in a John Waters movie) or no matter how how sudden and unexpected the violence hits its mark I usually managed to bark a sheepish laugh.

Also, I haven’t seen a better ending yet from any of the other Oscar nominees: I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or not, and for me, that’s a real conclusion.

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