Review: The Dark Side Embraces Natalie Portman In 'Black Swan'
It’s become clear to me what Darren Aronofsky’s approach is on story-telling. Something about this man thrives on a little bit of everything – you name it! Perversely playful and always looking to expose characters’ inner-demons in the most astute ways ever, I’m labeling him Hollywood’s Shrink! With a solid resume of films that psychologically undertake ones’ attention-span, Black Swan doesn’t stray too far from Darren’s foundation, and sets the pace when around the beginning of the film a line is thrown out during dialog about how they’re going to explore and unleash ballet’s darkest existences.
Once I heard that, I KNEW the audience was in for a ride!
Nina Sayers (Portman) dances for a NYC ballet company run by Thomas Leroy (Cassel). When veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) retires, Nina wages a determined battle for the lead role in ‘Swan Lake,’ which encompasses both the vulnerable, virginal White Swan and the evil Black Swan. Nina lives in a tiny, pastel-colored apartment with her mom (Hershey), an emotionally disturbed former dancer. Nina’s bedroom is painted in pink (butterflies) and adorned with fluffy stuffed animals; seeming peaceful, however, Mother picks on her every night by doing all she can to emotionally beat her. Nina’s restrained, uptight innocence is so jarring that when other characters curse or joke, their words clash with Nina’s world. Leroy and fellow dancer Lily (Kunis) work to chip away Nina’s composure, to break her down until she can dance with the passion required for the Black Swan… and as Nina’s walls crumble, she descends into complete insanity.
As the movie progresses, bubbly, straight-forward Lily takes on a menacing, erotically-charged presence in Nina’s mind. Kunis and Portman share an (allegedly tequila-facilitated) sexual encounter that’s as disturbing as it is hot. Kunis is known best as bitchy-but-loveable Jackie in That 70s Show, and with Lily, the actress showcases her skill with comic timing and her contagious smile. In Aronofsky’s hands (And this is what I’m talking about) even Kunis’s graceful ease, so disparate from Nina’s rigidity, becomes ominous. Lily and Nina become interchangeable in Nina’s mind and her sexual awakening becomes sinister, narcissistic, equally threatening and pleasurable. Cassel’s Leroy is a slimy egotist who abuses his power to sexually manipulate Nina.
Nina’s innocence mirrors that of the White Swan, certainly; what’s more interesting is comparing Nina’s arc from virtue to psycho. The child actress (Portman) never quite managed to outgrow her sweet persona—even when she played a stripper in Closer there remained a thin veil between Portman and the character, something that didn’t quite mesh. Under Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Portman rips the veil and virtually becomes Nina, both vulnerable and insane, White Swan and Black Swan. For once the actress’s doll-like features and tiny stature work in her favor. She lost a lot of weight for the role, and physically she looked absolutely fragile, as though she might shatter like the spinning porcelain dancer in her music box. Nina’s angelic face evokes a wounded animal; when she tries on a smile for size, it’s a completely unfamiliar experiment. Like Nina, Portman is perfect for the role of White Swan, but to watch her take on the darker side of Nina is unbelievably brilliant. A lot of her character’s pain was so well presented, like James Franco as Aron Ralston (127 Hours), this is Portman’s best acting performance ever – I personally think!
Just like Wrestling, Ballet is an art form that beats and stretches the human body to its utmost limits. Black Swan oozes with violent imagery spurred by injury and anguish both real and imagined. Aronofsky emphasizes broken toenails, a displaced diaphragm, a bloody hangnail, and snapping ankles with crackling sound effects. Nina’s breathing underscores much of the film, keeping the viewer on edge like a panicked heartbeat in a horror movie. To break in new shoes, dancers score, bend, beat, and crack the soles. Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan, both in narrative form and cinematographically, is as brutal as this process: she goes from stiff and inexperienced to beaten, broken, and almost “perfect.” Like any other art-form, the obligated origins of professional dance requires from dancers constant vigilance, a pervasive focus on the body, a spotlight on physical beauty and grace. The film implies that dancers only amount to what’s reflected back to them: as Nina’s world begins to collapse, mirrors and counterparts take center stage. Leroy first appears monstrously distorted in a studio mirror, Nina’s own reflection—often in duplicate—terrorizes her, and she injures herself while staring into her reflection more than once. As she plumbs her inner depths, her physical manifestation haunts her.
Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin crafted a script that pieces details. Exposition is a constant sprinkle rather than a downpour, allowing Aronofsky to build tension until the audience is at a breaking point. Some lines (particularly Cassel’s) are awkward or jarring, and it may surprise completely inappropriate laughter out of you—you have to laugh or else you’ll start climbing the walls. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who was also behind the camera on Requiem for a Dream) shot with Super 16 film, and the result is gritty, unrefined, and unflinching. The actors’ every pore and flaw is visible, and recurring Steady-Cam gives the film a spontaneous, home-movie feel. Nobody does “crazy” quite like Aronofsky and his effects team (remember Ellen Burstyn and the fridge from Requiem for a Dream?), and Nina’s hallucinations merge flawlessly with the film’s reality—distinguishing between real and imagined.
Aronofsky and Portman have the clout to make Black Swan an Oscar contender—as well it should be. As the credits rolled the audience sat in awkward silence, then a short moment later, they burst into enthusiastic applause. To fully appreciate the level of psychosis in the film, to trace the threads that weave the world of ballet and insanity together, one needs multiple viewings I think. I really plan on viewing this film again soon. But as with other Aronofsky movies, you’ll first have to recover from the initial shock. After you’ve unclenched your internal organs, you’ll probably find you loved the entire brutal, vicious experience. Personally, The Wrestler is to a wrestler’s life as I imagine Black Swan would be to a ballerina’s.
GRADE: A / GENRE: Psychological/Thriller and Drama / ROARS: 5 out of 5
RUN TIME: 1 Hr. 43 Min. / RATED: R
CAST: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel
DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky
(Opens on limited release Fri. Dec 3, 2010)
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