Black Swan (2010)
The prissy world of prima ballerinas and tutus doesn’t seem like a natural fit for sex, murder, lunacy, and mayhem. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) is used to exploring the punishments of the human body and the strain of the mind, so you know that Black Swan isn’t going to be your traditional dance movie.
Nina (Natalie Portman) has been a company ballerina in New York City for years. She spends her hours at home practicing the grueling routines in hopes to break out for a lead role. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a former ballerina herself who gave up her shot at the big time when she had Nina. Then the head of the dance company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has decided that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will be the first show of the season. It’s a bit tired, he admits, but he has a plan to juice it up: the same dancer will portray both the swan queen (tragic protagonist) and the black swan (villainous temptress). All of the dancers are committed to doing what they can to earn that coveted lead role. Nina’s primary worry is Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who is imperfect in technique but honest and free in her movements, garnering the attention of Thomas. In the process, Nina is losing her grip on reality. She’s hearing weird things, seeing weird things, and something dark wants to take center stage.
Black Swan is a grade-A mind freak of the first order, a tonal fusion of sight and sound that echoes earlier masterworks of the eerie psychological horror like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. This is a movie that gets under your skin; I literally had a nightmare the night after watching it, though I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. Black Swan is not a horror film by the traditional standard we’re accustomed to today. The entire film has a downright Kubrickian vibe, from its devoted tracking shots, to the overdose on classical music underscoring the dramatic tension, and the unraveling of the human mind toward eventual psychosis. Aronofsky keeps the audience tethered to Nina, at times literally. The camerawork will rarely stray away from Portman, like we’re caught within her orbit and forced to see the world through her fractured perspective. She is our eyes to the world but, as becomes increasingly apparent, we cannot trust what we see. The unreliable POV leads to some fantastic freak-out moments that will consistently leave you scrambling. The diligent pacing marvelously matches the dissolution of Nina’s psyche. As her paranoia and delusion take control, Nina comes undone one thread at a time, with Aronofsky on the other end providing the tugs. The spiraling mental determination culminates with a glorious 20-minute finale that manages to be tense, beautiful, haunting, and powerfully moving. There are moments in this film that gave me goose bumps (a blood red-eyed Portman growling, “It’s my turn” is a chilling highpoint). I became determined to see Black Swan again even before the closing credits arrived.
Aronofsky makes use of every tool at his disposal to heighten the intense atmosphere. The attentive editing and camerawork create a shifty mood, communicating Nina’s desperate groping for direction. But beyond that, Aronofsky employs subtle sound effects to rattle you, keep you off guard. Routinely there will be the fluttery sound of wings flapping or hushed whispers. It’s enough to make you shudder time and again. It’s a small touch that elevates the mood and instantly snaps you to attention whenever you hear the eerie echoes. The disquieting sound effects are coupled with equally subtle visual effects. As Nina absorbs herself in her ballet role we occasionally will witness the pores of her skin raise, as if invisible hair, or fathers, are protruding. Sometimes these raised bumps will wash over her body in waves. As Nina becomes more consumed with her darker impulses, the special effects take a surreal role in conveying her madness.
The film is also rather sensual without becoming trashy, late-night Cinemax fodder. Portman’s descent is linked with loosening up her own sexuality. She can portray the innocent and delicate white swan, but she’s having significant problems portraying the ominous and seductive black swan. She’s told to let go, lose herself to her physical impulses, and explore the confines of her nubile body. Black Swan is probably the artiest high profile film to feature prominent female masturbation since 2001’s trippy Mulholland Drive (the two movies have plenty of similarities in ambition). Nina’s suspicions about her rival transform into confusing erotic fantasies that will delight the teenage males in the crowd. Black Swan treads the erotic terrain with a European sense of maturity and candidness. The sex and masturbation and bisexual smooches don’t feel like gross, gratuitous shots at cheap titillation.
Portman ably takes the frazzled lead and gives an enthralling performance that will be hard to beat come Oscar time. The role is a lot more than screaming and crying. Although to be fair, Portman cries a whole lot. You may lose count the amount of times Portman is seen crying on screen. Her character is fragile but not fighting for sympathy. She can be distant and a little cold, obsessed with reaching the unattainable state of perfection. This pushes her to the extreme, goaded by her somewhat loopy mother. Portman has always been an attractive presence on screen, but she is also fairly transparent when she’s bored with her material (watch those Star Wars prequels and argue differently, I dare you). With Black Swan, she throws herself into a role like I’ve never seen before from Portman. I did not think the kewpie-dolled actress was capable of such heights. The immersion is entrancing. She physically trained for over a year before production to be able to do most of those pirouettes and fouettés. I’m not being overly generous with the dancing accolades; Portman comes across as smooth as a professional. The fact that Portman is capable of expressing so much devastating emotion through dance is astounding. My eyes were glued to her every movement. This is the performance that officially lifts Portman to the acting big leagues. She dances circles around the acting competition for 2010.
While it’s certainly Portman’s show, the supporting cast all shine in their small roles. Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Book of Eli) is made to exemplify the edgy opposing force in Nina’s life. Kunis’s natural charm and alluring presence might make her the most likeable character in the film, even though her wild ways will keep you guessing about her true motives. Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) seems like a doting and supportive mother at first glance, but the actress reveals shades of desperation and mania. Winona Ryder (Star Trek, Girl, Interrupted) makes a welcomed near-cameo as the ballerina pushed out of the spotlight. And then Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Eastern Promises) plays lecherous creep like few others.
The film manages to make ballet feel like a contact sport. These people punish their bodies, their artistic vessels. The rigorous routines require dancers to be in sleek form, which often leads to abuse via bulimia. The excruciating balance and coordination required places unusually high demands on the human body, particularly on the feet that must support the body in extreme positions. Broken toes and split nails are the least of the worries. Black Swan succeeds in showcasing the fierce brutality of dance; however, the movie also showcases the intrinsic beauty. I am a self-described novice when it comes to dance, especially ballet at that, but even I was spellbound by watching the dancing, notably the exhilarating Swan Lake opening night performance. The camera is positioned to be like another dancer, so we’re swooping and spinning around the stage with the featured performers. This gives the audience an intimate glimpse into the fluid movements and, just as importantly, the nuanced and sensual expressions of the performers. I would have scoffed at the idea of a ballet performance being anything more than frou-frou-ness, but Black Swan made me a believer. Witnessing the beauty and gracefulness of the dancing is proof that all that hard, punishing preparation is worth it.
Probing the stress of the body and fraying endurance of the mind, Black Swan richly explores the sacrifices we make for art and ambition. The world of ballet is highlighted as a hotbed for scandal and intrigue and female sensual desire. Not bad for all that hoofing around in frilly tights. Black Swan is anchored by Portman’s captivating descent into madness, a performance that will surely be awarded in the ensuing months to come. Aronofsky has fashioned a riveting psychological thriller with enough artfully crafted chills and spooks to make for one visceral experience at the art house. Beyond bringing the tingles of spine and bumps of goose, Black Swan digs into the psychological underpinnings of competition, devotion to art, and personal glory. There’s much more going on here than ballet. It’s a grade-A mind-freak but under Aronofsky’s skilled direction and Portman’s transfixing acting, Black Swan is also a grade-A piece of art and one of the most stunning works of cinema this year.
Nate’s Grade: A
Posted on December 1, 2010, in 2010 Movies and tagged barbara hershey, darren aronofsky, drama, mental illness, mila kunis, natalie portman, oscars, theater, thriller, vincent cassel, winona ryder. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.