Can Any Toronto Performances Possibly Eclipse Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman?

Listen, I'm with you on the hype thing: There can never be too little, especially this early in what's generally accepted as the dawn of awards season, pretty much before anyone's seen anything and studio money talks. But you know what? Let me put it this way: Everything you've heard about Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman's extraordinary performances in Biutiful and Black Swan is true, and if festivalgoers see anything better this week in Toronto, then all of us are in for one hell of a bounty in the months ahead.

I've been in town less than 48 hours, and already I've seen the kind of stuff most of us wait all year to find in theaters: Two exquisitely nuanced performances by actors who've never been better. And to think they've been excellent all this time -- no slouches, these two, with careers' worth of adventuresome roles and risks and personas. Forget about the three Oscar nominations (and one win) between them; the surest sign of their brilliance this fall would be that the Academy overlooks them, leaving the authorized accolades to whomever's the sentimental favorite and/or conventional wisdom come February. Which probably isn't reassuring to their respective distributors at Roadside Attractions and Fox Searchlight, but their faith in this kind of art is really all the reassurance any self-respecting industry insider should need.

I know how naive that sounds, but again, what's great -- what's essential -- about Bardem and Portman is how they bend and transcend the rules. Take Bardem as Biutiful's Uxbal for starters, playing a two-bit Barcelona hustler whose revenue flows include channeling the souls of recently deceased children and middle-manning the relationships between Chinese human traffickers, Senegalese bootleggers, local police, and even his own children, from whose bipolar mother (Marical Alvarez) Uxbal is tentatively separated. He's the last person who should pushing or holding any of these agendas or responsibilities, not least because he has terminal cancer and less than four months to live.

tiff_black_swan_250.jpgSound bleak? It gets worse. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu goes for emotional broke here, not unlike he did to far more appalling effect in his earlier, self-serious sprawls 21 Grams and Babel. Yet Biutiful's crises work because of their ballast. Returning to his native Spanish language (and a voice that retreats and attacks in accordance with Uxbal's body and the disease that is consuming it), Bardem imposes an authority that Iñárritu's flabby, 148-minute tale otherwise lacks. It is not enough that Uxbal unreasonably disciplines his young son for kicking the dinner table and eating like a slob; he must be the moral center when the mother who threatens that boy's well-being re-enters their lives. It is not enough that he exploit and direct the illegal immigrants for whom he represents little more than a pimp; he must deliver their safety in the form of money, opportunity and barely more humane living conditions than the ones in which a cruel society tends to keep them. And it is not enough that his best intentions outmatch his redemption; his sins are repayable in full before he passes away. And boy, does he pay.

And that face! That narrowed, deadened face with the halfway-there smile and eyes like week-old roses. It is the most dynamic gift Bardem brings, generously sharing it with a director who -- for once, knowing what he has -- passes it along to his viewers. It takes decades to not only possess that face, but to master its technique. Here Bardem has finally done both, and Biutiful, while hardly perfect, is as much a masterpiece of individual technique as I expect to find up here.

And as far as group technique goes, good luck finding any star, director and cinematographer as in sync with each other as Black Swan's Portman, Darren Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique. This, too, is some kind of masterpiece: a slack-ish, melodramatic first half (jointly owned by Portman, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel) conjoined with a staggering, psychodramatic second half wholly owned by Portman. She plays Nina Sayers, an ambitious, hypersensitive dancer with the Lincoln Center Ballet who's in the running for the coveted part of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. My colleague Stephanie Zacharek already touched on much of the magic of Portman's performance, but one additional thing that struck me was the quality of her ambition as Nina -- that of an artist whose inability to compromise becomes its own artistic work.

tiff_black_swan_250.jpgIt's what Joaquin Phoenix attempts to mock (poorly) in I'm Still Here, but Portman's pirouettes between personalities and moods illustrate what truly happens -- the genuine stakes -- when a creation becomes inseparable from the creator. Aronofsky aids her with Requiem For A Dream-level visual flair, and LIbatique's fluttering camera showcases Nina as a kind of hostage to her own director (Cassel) -- a woman unable to let go in the throes of rehearsing the role of a lifetime. Yet in playing her own role of a lifetime, Portman weaves from captivity to unsinkability to vulnerability to predation, occasionally in the same shot as her hallucinations deepen.

One could easily argue after a while that she and Aronofsky are showing their hand -- that the collapse into madness is too obvious, too on-the-nose, too literal. Yet by the time Aronofsky turns to a succession of ingenious mirror effects, Nina is stalking herself, and all the layers of Portman's character begin to separate in front of us. Every Nina we seem to have met -- and every doubting, destructive Nina she has fought off to attain her single creative dream -- are right in front of us. And Portman is playing them all. Her performance moves beyond skill and into a sort of fraught magic, her last line hanging over the closing credits like some gypsy admonition. Try to shake it and it just clings more.

Bardem and Portman have their characters' passions (and their seeming inabilities to pursue and/or achieve them) in common, and both bring that third-act genius that sears rather than wallops. And thank goodness there's still a world where each role was not only conceived but actually made, cast not only well but flawlessly, and worthy of, yes, true hype. I can't wait to see what Saturday brings.



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