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Rapid Review: Black Swan

December 19, 2010

Swans are considered to be majestic, beautiful creatures.  Much beloved by the Russian aristocracy, they penetrate that nation’s folklore and are the basis for Tchaikovsky’s eternally famous ballet, Swan Lake.

The truth, of course, is that up close, swans are rather abrasive, obnoxious creatures more ready to bite you in the arm than cuddle up to you with their graceful necks.  Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan, knows this paradox quite well.

Any prima ballerina worth her salt wants to gain the part of Odette/Odile (the white and black swans of the ballet) in Swan Lake.  It’s an exhausting and draining dual role – one that requires  skill as well as passion and prowess.

Nina (Natalie Portman), an up and coming ballerina in Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel)’s company, has the skill part in spades.  Leroy doubts her passion, however.  That passion and pride that spring from a darker part of the soul are what comprise the black swan in the dual role Nina must play.  Black Swan as a movie is a tumultuous journey detailing how Nina navigates the road to discovering that darker, dual nature within herself.  She has plenty of reasons to doubt her own talent.  These reasons are both real and imagined.  The pursuit of perfection is exhausting, and the natures of the players in the game aren’t always identified in black and white.

Cassel's Leroy "instructs" Portman's Nina

Nina’s director and company are merciless in their expectations.  Cassel’s Leroy is a man so obsessed with his own brilliance it is difficult to resign one’s self to the notion that he might be correct.  He has already cast aside his former protegé (Winona Ryder) , a fading prima donna who in no accident of fate and casting, could be an older version of Nina.

Portman’s performance is a work of  restrained might.  She is fragile and almost cringe-worthy at first in her naiveté and sheltered existence, but soon her personality branches off into unexpected and interesting realms. 

Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, was a study of a man who is only comfortable with his on-stage persona.  Nina is rapidly becoming a part of a similar scenario.  She has a controlling, bitter mother (sharply played by Barbara Hershey) who is living vicariously through Nina’s actions.  Mom never got out of weaving the rows in the corps, and has a mean streak to burn.   Nina’s never been on her own – her room looks like a twelve-year-old inhabits it.  This is the essentially the core of Nina’s problem.

rivals?

Then there’s the new kid on the scene, Lily (Mila Kunis) who lacks Nina’s regimental elegance and talent, but has the passion part to spare.  She’s the very incarnation of the black swan, and this tugs at every nerve in Nina’s rapidly fraying brain.  It’s this pure emotion in Lily that both attracts and repels Nina’s sensibilities.  What does it take to “let go” in her roles both on stage and off? Nina feels as if she’s under fire from every corner of her universe, and this  leads to a psychological drama that is fascinatingly perverse. 

Aronofsky’s film could have been nothing more than an All About Eve re-make set in the ballet corps, but the performances and plot twists rise above the initial doubts.  Portman’s performance is just as interesting and even more faceted than Rourke’s in The Wrestler

Duality is the core of the plot, in both the ballet and in Nina’s world.  Relationships that seem to be straightforward turn out to be more intriguing and dimensional, never heading in the direction most screenplays would demand. 

The visual elements are captivating – from the costuming and set design down to the lighting, Black Swan is a treat – a Faberge sparkler with a rotten core.

Aronofsky’s previous films have all been interesting in a “museum piece” sense.  I always got the impression that viewing them (especially The Fountain) was like trying to make sense of someone else’s Etch-a-Sketch drawing.  You want to shake it around a little bit to make it come into focus, but that would ruin the point of the whole thing.   Black Swan is equally puzzling, but infinitely more accessible.

the world at her feet

Aronofsky’s tendency to frame shots so tightly works well with the content and emotional balance in this particular film, and his dependence on a not entirely reliable main character’s viewpoint is reminiscent of  the demonic magic that made The Turn of the Screw such a page-turned for Henry James over a hundred years ago.  The line between what is reality and what is stress-induced mania blurs both on stage and off, and it is almost decadent to revel in each new nightmare that spills forth from Nina’s brain.  It’s the balance between the visually absurd and the realistically tense that makes the movie a must-see.

Where the film heads in its final moments will be no surprise to those who are familiar with both Swan Lake and another great film about ballet, The Red Shoes.  It is inevitable, and yet Portman’s performance is stunning enough to make you doubt the obvious.

It must be startling to see ballerinas in real life, when the footlights have faded and the paint and powder have melted away.  On film, most directors would have you believe that the off-stage versions of these paper dolls are chain-smoking, sharp-eyed and chiseled-clawed waifs with little connection to reality.  What would Nina be like if you saw her sitting alone at  your local Cheesecake Factory?  The fact that I am even thinking about this at all is a testament to why you should see the film.

Overall Grade:  A +

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