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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Portman Taps into Her Dark Side to Become the ‘Black Swan’

Black Swan = 4 ½ out of 5


Nina:  I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who has turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.

I am sorry to generalize, but this is a fantastic film that functions as a terrifically terrifying ballerina drama.  While not a horror film, this is essentially a psychological thriller about Natalie Portman going insane.  Those who have a tough time not thinking ahead about what the reveals in a film will be, I am sorry if you feel I may have spoiled something (I do not believe I have), but this is a film very much about the physical and emotional stress that a character faces, as she strives for perfection.  Add to that the visual intensity that stems from Darren Aronofsky’s direction, and you have another film that will easily earn a place as one of my favorites of the year.


Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life is completely consumed with dance and being perfect.  She has had little time to actually let loose in her life, thanks largely to her obsessive, former ballerina mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), which is actually what effects the newest development in her company.  The company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, has decided to replace his prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), for the opening production of their new season.  Thomas chooses Swan Lake, which requires a dancer with enough grace and innocence to portray the White Swan role, while also being able to exude the sensuality and deceptiveness required to portray the Black Swan role.  As Nina is a person of cold perfection and not known for getting out much, Thomas only sees her as a natural fit for the White Swan, but not for the role of the Black Swan.  Fortunately (so one would think), Nina manages to convince Thomas otherwise.

Thomas Leroy:  That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.

While Nina has obtained prima ballerina status, a new dancer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis), appears to be new competition for her.  Lily has the style that is naturally fitting for the Black Swan, which puts Nina in a place to view this new opponent as both a rival and as a source of intrigue for how she may, herself, tap into the dark side she needs to better portray the Black Swan.  However, as Nina attempts to “learn” how to loosen up, that recklessness also threatens to work against her in horrifying ways.


Firstly, my hat is off to the score and the sound design in this film, among many of the other production aspects.  I had the pleasure of viewing this film at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, which is known for its great sound system, and I have to say, this is the type of film that you want to see in either a nice theater or somewhere with a great speaker setup.  Clint Mansell’s score for this film combines the themes of Swan Lake with the fitting tones of a story involving Natalie Portman going crazy.  The virtuoso third act of this film is particularly amazing, as the combination of swelling music, dynamic editing and effects, and wonderful imagery all serve to practically exhaust you by its end.  Add to that the great use of sound effects throughout, which emphasize the physical toll that these ballerinas are forced to endure, along with the generally creepy way Nina’s problems continue to manifest themselves.  For all the films in this era that have seem to forgotten what good tension is, this is an example of appropriately matching the thrilling elements with a terrific sense of building dread (I must again point out that this is not a horror movie, but it is not exactly comfortable to watch either).

Nina:  I just want to be perfect.

Natalie Portman is great in this movie.  She is sure to be a big contender come awards season, and rightfully so.  Her portrayal of a young woman dominated by her strive to be perfect, not at all helped by how her mother has pushed her, is wonderfully realized and a great new turn for her.  Having grown up as a trained ballerina (another notch on the list as to why Natalie Portman is just generally worldly and awesome) and adding another ten months of training for this role, the film has her perform almost all of her own dancing as well, which truly makes this a fully formed performance consisting of all sorts of talent to effectively show off.

The supporting cast is quite solid as well.  Mila Kunis brings a certain “reality”-type persona for her portrayal of Lily.  That is to say that compared to Portman’s Nina, Lily is more of a nonspecific persona grounded in the real world, with the added fact that she is much more free-spirited.  It works for her and continues to solidify Kunis’ career post That 70s Show.  Cassel’s work as Thomas is a great mix of professionalism, authority, and sleaziness, as his position as the company’s director leads to many understanding that there is more than just good dancing, which could lead to being favored in his eye.  Barbara Hershey is also very good as the domineering mother, Erica.  With some nods to other classic “evil” mother performances, Hershey manages to say many terrible things in a manner that sends some appropriate shudders down a spine.  She is also clearly a wounded soul that had to give up a dream, once becoming pregnant with Nina, an element that certainly serves to justify her actions.

 
With all the great work done by these actors, it is an easy way to start off with some of my minor quibbles.  While necessary and fitting to this film’s adjusted version of the Swan Lake story, Winona Ryder manages to go over-the-top to the point of me whispering to my friend in the theater, “That bitch is crazy.”  The other point of contention stems from the script.  The material is a bit thin, but certainly elevated by the filmmaking and performances present (I did not say terrifically terrifying ballerina drama because I thought the film was okay).  There are story elements that veer very close to trashy melodrama.  However, these elements certainly work out for the better and the film steers clear of Wild Things territory (however, that is a great little guilty pleasure-type film).

As far as the more striking elements of this film are concerned, it does a great job of evoking…certain emotions.  Basically, this is a movie that knows how to present moments that can be very sexy, as well as moments that can be incredibly creepy.  (I swear, again, I am not spoiling anything) The relationship between Nina and Lily is something that is explored during the phase of Nina following her intrigue towards her rival.  Then, as the trailer reveals, you also have the moments that explore the mental duress that Nina is under and how that leads to her “Swanning-out” throughout the film.  All of these elements work to add a continuous mix of intrigue and suspense that pays off well, as the film continues to play out.


I will stop from going further, but suffice it to say that I am enamored with this film.  It has the right amount of captivating elements to have kept me thinking about it days after.  At the same time, it manages to work on the appropriate level for a psychological thriller, mixing in layers of discomfort as we watch a bravura performance by Natalie Portman, as the character’s sanity comes more and more into question.  Add to that the film’s visual aesthetic, and there is another reason why breaking some molds and going all out on a familiar story can make for all the better.  Go watch this movie (I’ll be checking out a film that heavily influenced this one, 1948’s The Red Shoes).

Erica:  What happened to my sweet girl?
Nina:  She’s gone.


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