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Black Swan Is A Top-Notch Look At Perfectionism Gone Awry

Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Fox Searchlight, 2010

As I mentioned in my review of The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s films are largely about obsession, and the lengths to which extremely dedicated people will go to reach their goals, dreams, or just to feel good.  Black Swan certainly fits that mold; it’s practically a ballet version of The Wrestler, although told like a horror movie or thriller.  And this time, our hero’s very sanity is on the line, not to mention her life.  Aronofsky, in a strange way, is exploring what could be deemed “the method,” whereby a performer tries to experience real things his or her character would experience in order to get prepared for a role.  We don’t think of it lending itself to ballet because one might think ballet is just dancing.  But ballet can also be acting, and we as an audience need convincing.

In a competitive New York ballet company, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, in surely her best performance ever) is a technically proficient dancer currently lacking the real chops to play The Swan Queen in Swan Lake.  However, her innocence, and let’s face it, looking like Natalie Portman, draws director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) into picking her for the lead.  It is a changing of the guard: Leroy had been pegging an old pro, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) for leads in his productions for a long time, but she’s being unceremoniously replaced, forced into retirement, much to her self-destruction.  Nina’s alternate is Lily (Mila Kunis), and Nina starts getting the notion that Lily is gunning for her, in the neverending cycle of “uneasy lies the crown.”

Nina has been sweetly going about her ballet for some time now, with supposedly no other goal than to do anything than become extremely technically proficient, which anyone into art knows is a sign of a lack of passion or heart.  She has a dedicated mother (Barbara Hershey) who doesn’t seem to be the obsessive mother type.  She seems to really love her daughter and would probably be OK with Nina quitting ballet if she wanted to; although I guess it’s possible there was a time Nina’s mom was one of those showbiz mom types, driven to make her daughter succeed and live vicariously through her, although I don’t really see any evidence of that here.  However, Thomas is driving his new swan into different terrain.  He doesn’t want a technically proficient dancer, he wants someone the audience wants to have sex with.  Thomas seems to be a bit of a lech, but as far as he goes in advances towards Nina, he always stops short of bedding her down.  He wants her to seduce him…but on stage.

Nina’s obvious virginal qualities conflict with the seductive qualities she’s supposed to portray, and a psychological break begins to take hold, and fantasy and reality start to mix.  A boozy, druggy encounter with Lily leads to (is it real, is it imagined) a wild lesbian romp, which has been the hook for this movie for many a heterosexual male ever since it was announced that “Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are gonna have wild lesbian sex in their next movie, you know, something about ballet, but mostly lesbian sex.”  Of course, there are two sides to the coin here with this scene: there are many who argue this should be a nudity-filled, grinding romp, important to Nina’s character development.  I’m one who would have liked to have watched such a scene with two such gorgeous ladies.  But by the time the movie gets to this point, I realized that had it been one of those ridiculous sex scenes with tons of nudity, it might have completely taken me out of the movie and would have been clouding everything that comes after that point.  That would have been a shame, because Nina’s transformation and subsequent performance, the tour-de-force final sequence, is an amazing piece of filmmaking.  It’s an Aronofsky special to slowly build into a major payoff.  Also, love that life-imitates-art-imitates-life motif.

It’s also an Aronofsky special to show the extremes of obsession, and real or imagined, Nina’s transformation, one in which she thinks she really is turning into a swan, is filled with moments where you will cringe at all of the abuse her body is taking.  That’s where the movie gets a lot of its horror.  But it’s also filmed in a way that a horror movie is filmed, complete with creepy moments and even a couple of “boo” scares.  Aronofsky realizes that the abuse, physical and psychological, that one can do to oneself, is horror.

This is a brilliant film, and Portman, for the first time, gives a performance that is so good that I didn’t see a trace of the affectation in which she can be prone, even in performances where she’s been considered great, like Closer.  It’s obvious she wanted to knock this one out of the park, and she does.  She descends into a real level of madness, one that is without the token shrieks and overdone cries for help we see in most such movies.  As for Aronofsky, this guy can almost do no wrong.  He’s one of our very best filmmakers.  Amid all the crap we see week in and week out, we still have a few people we can count on.


Comment from Jonathan
Time: December 27, 2010, 5:58 pm

I think not only is this Portman’s best performance; this might be her first good one. Even movies I’ve liked with her in it (ala “Closer” or “Garden State”) I haven’t much cared for her. But her she earns her kudos quite nicely. I would hope Arnofosky is not as slimy in real life as Cassell’s (also brilliant) character in the film, but you could argue some parrallels with the director getting everything he could out of Portman for the role.

And after a great comedic turn a couple of years ago in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and now this, Kunis has become quite the nice suprise, and makes you wish she was doing more filmwork not called “Max Payne” or “American Psycho 2.”

You are dead on about the lesbian scene. That was as artfully filmed a sex scene as I have ever seen. The scaly skin hallucinations was a nice touch as well. Enough trashiness to get to Portman’s character and get her further down her path to the looneyville, but also enough restraint to (as you said) not be taken out of the movie.

All the way around, great film. Probably the best one I’ve seen this year other than possibly “Social Network.”

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