A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2010

Rank:  #2


2010, R, 108 mins.


Nina/White Swan: Natalie Portman / Lily/Black Swan: Mila Kunis / Thomas: Vincent Cassel / Erica/Queen: Barbara Hershey / Beth/Dying Swan: Winona Ryder

Directed by Darren Aronofsky / Written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz and John McLaughlin.

To simply call Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN a chronicle of the rigors of professional ballet would be woefully misleading.  The film is more of a hallucination…a brutal nightmare…dealing with its main character’s nosedive descent into debilitating madness.   

The fact that she is a dancer is almost a cursory point: BLACK SWAN brazenly consumes viewers for how it’s a devastatingly intense, psychologically horrific, and hauntingly operatic portrait of a young woman whose childhood, passive aggressive mother, and own guileless and naïve ambition slowly propels her towards a ferociously psychotic break from reality.  Aronofsky channels the lurid and startling works of Cronenberg, De Palma, and Polanski and delicately sprinkles it, yes, with the schlocky melodramatic extremes of SHOWGIRLS all to create a mesmerizing masterpiece of the macabre and absurd.  I’ve never quite seen anything like it. 

The main story contained within – from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, based on a previously unrealized screenplay by Aronofsky – has many familiar elements that we have seen before when it comes to back-stage, behind-the-scenes dramas about female performance artists: we have the bitter rivalries; the fierce artistic ambition that overcomes all other imperatives; the heated cat-fights; the pretentious and dictatorial male director with vile and duplicitous motives; and a climatic stage presentation that sort of echoes the mindsets of the players behind the scenes.  Yet, Aronofsky is not interested in these elements that make up so many other forgettable dramas; he’s more intrigued with the inner obsession and fractured personality caught within this basic storyline.  The juxtaposition that he offers here is compelling and deliciously grotesque: he presents the grace and beauty of ballet on top of the horrors of one performer gradually letting her passion for the art form drive her mad.  BLACK SWAN is both oddly beautiful and sickeningly creepy, and it is to Aronofsky’s venerated credit that he pulls of this dichotomy with such a raw exactitude.   

Nina Sayers (in the most unflinching, provocative, and complete performance of her career by Natalie Portman) is like an innocent, sexually repressed young girl trapped in an adult body that has not yet emotionally matured.  She is a talented New York dancer that is technically proficient, but lacks a necessary emotional component that would allow her to really shine.  She has a porcelain-like complexion and beauty to go with her talent, but she nonetheless strives for the pinnacle of perfection.  While on this personal journey towards her professional dream she is ruled over by her frantically loving mother (a remarkably secure Barbara Hershey) that still pampers and treats her like an infant, which may have a lot to do with Nina’s tepidness and fragility.  Nina has an eating disorder and a lifelong history with body disturbance issues (she scratches herself to the point of spilling blood), which makes her mother that much more of a zealous control freak in her life.   

Nina wants only one thing that is seemingly far from her grasps: the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a wicked re-imagining of the SWAN LAKE ballet by the revered – but authoritative and intimidating – Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, so effortlessly repellent and slimy here).  The ballet itself requires a very tricky and taxing dual role: one must portray the good and pure White Swan as well as the sultry and oppressive visage of the Black Swan.  Nina is more than capable of pulling off the former, but it is with the latter where she suffers, something that is revealed in her initial tryout that climaxes with the harshly frank criticisms of Leroy.  The sly and conniving director knows that he will have to push a proper dual performance out of Nina to get the results both he and she require, but just how far will she have to go? 

After initially failing to get the role, Nina has a teary-eyed confrontation with Leroy that leads to him hitting on her behind closed doors.  She resists and bites his tongue, and when she leaves she thinks she has lost her chance for the role, but to her surprise it is her tough resistance to Leroy that made him want her for the part.  However, even with Nina securing the role of her dreams, she becomes plagued with insecurity when the Titanic-sized expectations of Leroy for the ballet are difficult for her to meet.  She becomes traumatized by the fact that her predecessor, Beth (played well in a small role by Wionna Ryder) had a huge fall from grace in terms of her professional career and her romantic entanglements with Leroy.  Compounding this is the appearance of another intrepid and head-strong ballerina named Lily (Mila Kunis) that is everything Nina is not: intensely assured, spunky, outgoing, and sexually liberated, which makes her just right for the dual role.  With insurmountable pressures building, Nina slowly begins to unravel: she suffers from horrid hallucinations and nightmares that reach a boiling point when her grasp of fantasy and reality seems to have eroded altogether. 

The sheer luridness and frightening undertones of Nina’s spiritual disentanglement is reiterated brilliantly by Aronofsky’s sparse, but evocative aesthetic style: instead of shooting the backstage world of professional dancers with a bright and cheery palette, he opts to utilize a dark, grainy, desaturated, and unsightly film stock, which just heightens the film’s suggestion of morose unease.  It would have also been enticing to shoot the individual dance pieces themselves with a lovely elegance, but Aronofsky employs loose, bobbing and weaving, fly-on-the-wall hand-held camera work that swirls in and out of the dance choreography to give it fluidity, but it also reflects the yo-yo effect of Nina’s paranoia, jealousy, and escalating psychosis.  Aside from the bravura cinematography and shooting style, BLACK SWAN is a film that begs to be heard on multiple viewings: just listen to the sonic landscape that echoes discretely in the background.  The audible sound of bird vocals and wings flapping are spliced in with a raucously operatic score by Clint Mansell and all of this makes BLACK SWAN reflect Nina’s cruel break from reality.  When the film finally reaches its finale that involves a transfixing and potent presentation of SWAN LAKE with Tchaikovsky’s music accompanying Aronofsky’s gloriously ghastly visuals, BLACK SWAN becomes a climatic and complex orchestration of chaos and terror. 

Natalie Portman has given many great and memorable performances (like early child roles in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL and BEAUTIFUL GIRLS to her Oscar nominated turn in CLOSER and her undervalued work in GARDEN STATE and V: FOR VENDETTA), but she has never approached the dark depths of her craft as she does here in BLACK SWAN.  Her performance is startling on two levels: (1) the technically mastery she demonstrates here as a dancer is extraordinary (she trained for a year to effectively and plausibly look and pull off the part of a ballerina) and (2) her eerie, animalistic, and erotically charged transformation to a twitchy, schizophrenic cauldron of anxiety, fear, and dismay is what will really have Oscar voters fixated later next year.  She has never so thoroughly inhabited a persona so tortured, so damaged, and so scarily compelling on so many levels.  BLACK SWAN is a towering verification of Portman’s skills, oftentimes which are overlooked. 

The other towering star of BLACK SWAN is, yes, Aronofsky himself.  Has there been another recent director that has so radically and victoriously altered his career trajectory as he has?  Early successes like Pi and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM prefaced 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN, which I placed on the Ten Worst Films list for that year and called it “one of the most …impressive misfires in a long time.”  Yet, he defied even my overriding doubts about his career with his astonishing rebound effort in 2008’s THE WRESTLER, which redefined him as a directorial force to be reckoned with.  BLACK SWAN seems like the perfect companion piece to that film, although they could not be any different (one’s about ballet and the other is about pro-wrestling).  Yet, Aronofsky’s last two films share one theme: tragically flawed personalities that drive themselves to fervent extremes for the profession they love to the point where it leads to their personal downfall and annihilation.  BLACK SWAN takes that theme to a whole other warped level by immersing it in a mind-altering psychological horror film.   

Some will find BLACK SWAN too darkly inaccessible or full-bloodedly theatrically to sit through (this is not an enjoyable or upbeat film), but it’s the film’s ethereal flourishes and purposely flamboyant eccentricities that make it one of 2010’s most visually arresting and dramatically memorable motion pictures.

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