Black Swan


Review by Joel Frost

“You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward,” says Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), ballet director to Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), and he could be speaking to the actress herself, as Ms. Portman’s career, while respectable, has not led her to too many deep and harrowing performances. Few would doubt her talent, witnessed occasionally and briefly in films like “Cold Mountain”, “Garden State” and perhaps still most notably in her feature debut, “The Professional”. She had not yet, however, carried a film on her back, with the whole enchilada riding on her performance. The waiting on that is apparently over.

In “Black Swan”, Darren Aronofsky’s tragic love note to artists and artistry, Ms. Portman delivers an uneasy, tense showing that will certainly garner an Oscar nomination and perhaps the award itself. Nina Sayers is a young (but not the youngest) ballerina who is faced with the challenge of dancing the lead in Swan Lake, her first leading role and apparent coming-out party. She has replaced Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, well-cast) as the Lincoln Center ballet’s leading lady, and Beth is none too pleased over the development. Neither, for that matter, are a few of the other young ballerinas. The world that Aronofsky, Andres Heinz (story and writer), Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin (writers) introduce the audience to is a tightly-wound, competitive place, not perfect for the demure and faint of heart. Unfortunately for Nina, that’s exactly what she is. Raised (and practically suffocated) by her mother (Barbara Hershey) a former ballerina who gave up her own dreams to bring Nina into the world, Nina is timid and terrified of failure. She yearns for perfection and lives in constant fear that she’ll lose her grip on her dreams, the dreams of her mother, and apparently any sense of control whatsoever. Nina’s mother plays doting, oppressive hand-maiden to her daughter, tucking her in to a little girl’s bed every night, as if trying to keep her young by any means necessary. It’s quite clear that in this world, youth is a virtue, and Nina can hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near. She is almost numbed by the prospect of all that she has worked and hoped for slipping through her fingers, and seems to feel helpless to defend herself from such a possible future.

Leroy, not a particularly tactful chap, sees all of Nina’s talent and reads her lack of obvious passion as an impediment to the production of Swan Lake. The ballet requires two distinct and opposing portrayals/dances; of the White and Black swans. Leroy is sure of Nina’s ability to dance the White swan, and concerned about her ability to perform the Black swan, which he is sure requires a kind of freedom and sexuality that Nina will not allow to burgeon. Mila Kunis shows up as Lily, a potential rival to Nina, and assists in the freeing of Nina’s sexuality, with one scene showing a particularly graphic effort in that endeavor (Although the events of the scene may never have actually happened. You’ll enjoy it anyway, I expect). It becomes clear, though, that all the badgering and seducing in the world may not be able to draw out Nina’s inner beast.

Darren Aronofsky stays in tight on his actors for most of the film, occasionally drawing back to help define Nina’s solitude. Up close, it’s easy to see the balancing act that a ballerina in Nina’s position has to handle. Ms. Portman trained and dieted for months like a professional ballet dancer, and her bones, muscles, and sinews are a road map of the character’s journey to where we find her. The struggle to appear effortless can be all-consuming, and Portman handles this excellently, with the camera practically on top of her for most of the film. Slowly, too, she metes out the required unhinging of her character, against the back-drop of the competing dancers, insistent director, strangling mother, jealous (and at least equally unhinged) exiting star, and the weight of the production and performance itself. Nina is ill-equipped for all of these elements, and “Black Swan” is an examination of how she deals with all of it; not exceptionally well, by the standards of sanity.

While there are elements of horror to this psychological thriller (there’s plenty of blood from sharp edges), it’s the well-earned kind. Aronofsky is not the sort of director to shock merely for shock’s sake. “Black Swan” is his entry into the eerie and icky pantheon, wherein the cut of a scissor too-deep to the quick of Nina’s nails and the ensuing blood is as stomach-churning as any axe-murder the silver screen has ever shown. Aronofsky is deeply interested in human frailty, transformation, and regeneration. “The Wrestler”, “Requiem for a Dream”, “The Fountain”; all films which explore such themes. Aronofsky has found a place in Hollywood, somehow, while studying the beauty of the grotesque. One can’t help wonder how he will handle Wolverine, as the next film about that character (again with Hugh Jackman, also of “The Fountain”) is Aronofsky’s next project.

“Black Swan” may be his best film to date, and it’s no less queasy than his others. His maturing as an artist has not seen him leaving out the tough parts to curry wider appeal. Natalie Portman performs the dance that this role requires expertly. It would be nice to see her stick to such thick and juicy parts. She has been coy with her brilliance at times, she should not be; it is something to marvel at. Aronofsky’s film is an amorous bird of prey, and Ms. Portman is the quarry. She triumphs, and Nina languishes, and it’s truly a thing of beauty.

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Release Date: December 3, 2010
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Country: USA
Rated: R
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures


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