Black Swan

2011-02-11 13:53
Black Swan
What it's about:

Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer very much committed to her art and when she finally lands the lead role in her company's production of Swan Lake, it appears that her ambition, perseverance and endless hours of practice have finally paid off. It's not long, however, before Nina realises that this opportunity, this culmination of all her hard work, may come with a price: a price that may consume everything she has, including her sanity.  

What we thought:

The idea of going to the ballet may cause some (and by some, I do mostly mean men) an endless amount of pure psychological terror but it still takes a certain kind of genius – or, indeed, a certain kind of madman – to make a psycho-thriller based on a bunch of dainty, leotard-wearing ballerinas dancing Swan Lake. But then, Darren Aronofsky is exactly that kind of mad genius.

Black Swan may seem like a crazy idea on paper but it's not too much of a stretch when you consider Aronofsky's brilliantly deranged body of work. It is an obvious thematic follow-up to his previous movie, the critically lauded The Wrestler, as it is driven by the central premise of an athlete being consumed by his or her sport/art. Black Swan displays traces of all of Aronofsky's past films. The Wrestler is there in theme and premise but it draws equally on Requiem for a Dream's sense of psychological unrest and on the sheer imagination and scope of The Fountain, his most ambitious, flawed and overlooked film.

Black Swan may not quite match the frankly bonkers ambition of something like The Fountain – it doesn't take place across time and space, for a start – but it is a film that tackles obsession, madness, sexuality, the nature of reality and the transformative power of art. It's also immensely moving in a way that is both primal and visceral – as all the best horror films and thrillers do. It challenges the mind while simultaneously taking a battering ram to the gut.

It is also, let it be said, a film about ballet. In fact, it's a film about ballet in the same way that The Wrestler was NOT a film about wrestling. While Mickey Rourke's character in the latter may define him according to his sport, his sport could just as easily have been boxing or American football and the film would have turned out exactly the same. In Black Swan, on the other hand, Natalie Portman's character – and the insane journey her character takes – is genuinely defined by the very nature of ballet.

Like the dance to which she has dedicated her life, Portman's Nina Sayers is on the surface an elegant, exquisitely poised creature but behind that perfection lies something far darker, far more sinister – something genuinely dangerous. Aronofsky doesn't merely portray ballet as an art and a display of physical prowess, though it is certainly those as well , he portrays it as something that demands the body, soul and lifeblood of those who practice it. The ballerina in Black Swan, in their pursuit of perfection, are pushed and punished mentally, physically and spirituality to a point that, by comparison, the practitioners of even the most extreme sports look like a bunch of pansies.  

The combination of Aronofsky's gutsy direction, Matthew Libatique's stark cinematography and Clint Mansell's haunting score create a film with an almost palpable sense of mood and creepiness that worms its way under your skin, inch by inch, minute by minute. By the time the film reaches its hyped-up, metaphor-drenched climax, it feels less like you've watched the film and more that the film has steam-rolled right over you. Whether it's the best film of the last year or not may be debatable, but it's certainly the most engrossing – almost physically so.

And, of course, however much of the film's success needs to be placed at the hands of the film's crew, the actors make no less of an impression. Winona Ryder is wonderful as the washed-up and thoroughly broken older and obsolete former prima ballerina and Vincent Cassel is convincing as the remorseless ballet instructor,Thomas. Barbara Hershey just as well as our protagonist's hysterical, overbearing mother who tries to live vicariously through her daughter's successes.

Mila Kunis, meanwhile, damn near steals the show as our protagonist's chief rival/ ally/ saboteur/ lover who is as mysterious as she is lively, as threatening as she is vivacious. Most important – and best - of all though, is Natalie Portman. Hers is a multi-layered, brittle and constantly evolving role and that she not only lives up to the challenge, but surpasses all expectations as well, makes her not only a dead cert for this year's Oscar for best actress, but a very deserving one as well. Other than the woodenness of her acting in the Star Wars prequels, she has always been good but here she has really pushed her craft beyond levels that even her biggest fans might have imagined.                 
Black Swan is a ballet movie, for sure, and it's certainly anything but mainstream, but it is a truly magnificent piece of work that deserves all the accolades and hyperbole thrown at it. And to all you manly men out there, if none of this convinces you watch a film about ballet, perhaps I can entice you with promises of steamy lesbian scenes involving Ms. Portman and Ms. Kunis? I thought that might catch your attention...

Natalie Portman is outstanding in a ballet movie that is primal, deranged and very, very engrossing.
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Pippa Smith 2011/02/14 20:47
  • Rating:
I did not expect the horror component to this movie. I sat on the edge of my seat thinking it was a corny overdone horror movie but simultaneuosly engrossed with the terrible details of a dancer's life: the blisters, the food deprivation and the neurotic obsession with being good. i wanted to fed Natalie Portman a steak and suggest a shag, but the claustrophobia of her world and her mother was very dark and compelling. not a great movie but very gripping and dark look at the world of ballet and the pursuit of perfection...and her descent into madness had me wondering if she was going mad or me... thought -provoking.
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