Black Swan


Black and White and Red All Over

Main Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Delving into a troubled human psyche on film is always tricky.  From whose point of view do you show the world?  If you stick in the head of the character who’s troubled, the audience never knows what’s real and what’s imagined.  If you never go there, the audience has no connection to the character.  The only way to go into a breakdown successfully is to go in and out of the mind of the person breaking.  Like I said – tricky.  Darren Aronofsky has shown before that he can walk that tightrope in Requiem for a Dream and he does is again, with a deep, dark intensity in Black Swan.

Black Swan is the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).  Nina is a dedicated ballerina whose entire life revolves around dance.  She lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself, who enables Nina’s already obsessive focus on her career.  When the chance arises for Nina to play the lead in Swan Lake, her real and imagined shortcomings and the pressure of the role shake her already fragile psyche with results that are both horrible and somehow beautiful.

First let me say that the score for this film is magnificent.  Not only the classic music from the ballet – the entire film is filled with deep, throbbing music that echoes Nina’s frailty, confusion and deep, aching neediness.  There is a strong element of sexual repression in this story and it’s reflected beautifully in the score.

The plot is a wonderful layering of the story of Swan Lake with the stories of Nina, director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and fading diva Beth (Winona Ryder).  The parallels between the classical story told in the ballet and the story happening around the production are neatly handled without being heavy handed or awkward.  Screenwriters Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin weave a masterful tapestry with elements both familiar and new.  Choosing ambiguity of motive for the peripheral characters adds to the tension as Nina tries to make sense of her ever more confusing world.

Black Swan is visually stunning.  The dance studios look dingy and worn, labyrinthine and connected to a shining stage by only the thinnest of threads.  Nina’s apartment is filled with small, closed spaces, mirroring her encapsulated life.  As she ventures beyond her comfortable borders in an attempt to free herself to dance with a passion she has never felt, her surroundings quickly become overwhelming and surreal.  She doesn’t know how to live in such a tumultuous world and we see how overloaded her senses become.  The dance sequences are lovely – I have no idea if they’re realistic.  The effects representing Nina’s disintegrating persona are imaginative and used sparingly until her spiral reaches its climax.

The true star of Black Swanis, indeed, its star.  Natalie Portman is fabulous as Nina.  A small woman to begin with,

Photo of Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman being ridiculously stunning in 2011

Portman makes her Nina even smaller – using her petite stature to her advantage as she plays a woman who shrinks from the world, being as small as possible in every arena outside the stage.  We see her struggle to expand and become the full, sultry seductress called for by one part of the role.  She watches with envy as Lily infuses her body with passion as she moves, out of control, lacking discipline, but with every ounce of the sensuality that Nina lacks.  Portman pushes against her internal and external (I’m looking at you, Mother) shackles, desperately using her minimal inner resources to create a persona with which she has absolutely no familiarity.  She’s meek and terrified, yet burns with determination to finally be the lead, to make this role happen no matter the cost.

The supporting cast delivers at every turn.  Vincent Cassel is both repugnant and magnetic as the director who will do whatever it takes to have a successful performance and season.  Mila Kunis continues her rise to A list stardom as Lily, embodying her character with palpable sexual energy – exactly what Nina lacks.  Hershey is suitably creepy as the has-been ballerina mother who both lives through her child and resents her for her success and her very existence.

Black Swan works on nearly every level.  It’s scary, dark, intense and dramatic while maintaining a fragile beauty that’s much like its lead character.  Aronofsky digs masterfully into the mind of his troubled wannabe diva and his actors reward him with stunning performances.  Five stars.

photo by David Torcivia

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