Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Black Swan Movie Review

Aronofsky uses mirrors to visually illustrate Nina's fractured mind.

Darren Aronofsky is not a director who does anything by halves. His films have an air of the lunatic about them and focus on the ways people mistreat and brutalize themselves both physically and emotionally (although one tends to follow the other). In Pi it was a mathematician descending into madness searching for a universal theorem. In Requiem for a Dream he chronicled the toll drugs (both illicit and prescribed) take on the human body. The Wrestler, his most straightforward narrative film to date, contained elements touching on the physical torment “professional” wrestlers put themselves through.

Working from a screenplay by three relative novices (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin), his latest and best is Black Swan, the story of a ballerina with a few (ahem) mental health issues during a New York Ballet Company production of “Swan Lake.” Natalie Portman plays Nina in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance. Nina is desperate to secure the lead role of the Swan Queen now that the former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is aging out of the profession. After Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the company’s artistic director, toys with her a little, she gets the part. Then the real toying begins. One thing Aronofsky has been consistently good at is building a rhythm in his films. They start with a slow burn and, like the characters at their centers, build to a fevered crescendo.

But the film is not about dancing any more than The Wrestler was about wrestling. It’s not even about what these dancers do to their bodies for the sake of their art, although that is an important element struck home with a metaphor hammer (the dancers slash the soles of their ballet shoes with scissors; Nina splits a toenail while dancing en pointe). Aronofsky engages in a sort of Cronenbergian obsession with bodily injuries and scars.

No, it’s not really about those things at all, but rather it’s about the tenuous line between precision and emotion in art. Nina strives for perfection, but Thomas lets her know that perfection is about more than getting all the moves right – she has to be willing to lose herself in the performance. She may not realize it as it happens, but Nina completely loses herself to the character of the Black Swan (not so subtly representing the bad girl, id side of her) while shrugging of the White (the chaste picture of perfection that her mother wants her to maintain).

Really Black Swan is much more horror film than backstage drama. Aronofsky employs all the trappings including shock cutaways combined with harsh musical chords, scary figures looming in the darkness, a vaguely threatening score by Clint Mansell, who also scored Moon, another horror film hiding inside a genre piece. The conflict is between Nina and herself, a point made overtly by the abundant number of times she thinks she sees herself on the subway, on the street and even in other people in her dance company.

The other key role is Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer in the company who Thomas admires for being so capable of setting herself free in the dance. She befriends Nina, who eventually comes to distrust her for fear she has ulterior motives to subvert Nina. Kunis has come a long way since her sitcom days on “That 70s Show.” Here she must strike a delicate balance between realism and fantasy as Lily may or may not be at the forefront of Nina’s hallucinations.

I’ve been critical of Portman’s acting in the past. I’ve often found her to be too dainty, soft-spoken, and without a strong enough command to really attack a difficult role. Aronofsky uses those qualities to great advantage and then, like Thomas, helps her find the inspiration to truly inhabit the role. Nina may not physically become a swan (although in her mind she does), but Portman seems to become, for a moment, Nina.

Nina starts the film almost as an empty shell – waif-like, bony (Portman looks like a skeleton), almost incapable of standing up for herself and always on the verge of tears. As we see her relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey) develop we begin to see the dynamic that may have led to Nina’s being such an introverted mess of a girl. Her mother may not be as domineering, but she is basically Carrie’s mother without the Bible thumping. As she progresses, emerging from the protective world her mother has built around her, she takes Thomas’s advice on preparing for the role (in any other profession he would be slammed with a sexual harassment suit) and begins a series of fantasies/hallucinations of which neither she nor the audience can determine what’s real and what isn’t.

Portman’s performance, like the tone of the film, is so nuanced you’ll barely notice the changes happening. But once it reaches its violent Dionysian conclusion, you may stun yourself to think back to the early scenes and consider the sea change that has occurred in less than two hours.

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