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Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan comes to us from director Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker often hailed as a “visionary.” I’ve only seen two of his films – the first two – his black and white debut Pi and the follow up, Requiem for a Dream – which is one of my favorites and a truly harrowing and nightmarish plunge into a world of drug addiction. His other features are the Hugh Jackman opus The Fountain and the recent Mickey Rourke resurrection vehicle, The WrestlerBlack Swan is a film about ballet – a film specifically about a ballerina who is losing herself in a role and in the process seems to also be losing her mind. An unusual choice for the director, I thought, but he invests himself one hundred percent in the project. So do the actors – especially Natalie Portman who gives a go for broke performance that not surprisingly has generated Oscar rumblings.

Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York City ballet company – she is supremely dedicated, she is talented and she has just landed the starring role in the company’s production of Swan Lake. A dual role – the White Swan and the Black Swan. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) knows that Nina is the perfect choice for the White Swan – all virginal innocence. But her Black Swan is more problematic – the sensuality and abandon that is required in order to seduce the audience is something he is uncertain she can deliver. Then a potential rival presents herself in the form of the untamed Lily (Mila Kunis) a dancer who has just arrived at the company from San Francisco. She embodies everything that Thomas says the Black Swan is.

We see that Nina is clearly not well off. She purges, she has a history of punishing her body – not only the injuries that come par for the course from all her strenuous training, but also self inflicted wounds. At a party she imagines peeling a long piece of skin from her finger, and her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) takes it upon herself to keep Nina’s nails cut very short to prevent her daughter from scratching herself – a habit that once was so bad Erica had to buy expensive concealer to help hide the marks. So, yeah, Nina is wound pretty tight and the closer she comes to opening night the more her sanity frays. A rash appears on her shoulder. Her mother voices concerns about the stress of the role being too much on her. Lily seems to be trying to worm her way into Nina’s life and sabotage her performance. Nina begins to see girls that look exactly like her. The company’s previous prize dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder) pushed unhappily into retirement, lands herself in the hospital after walking into the street and being hit by a car. Beth was involved with Thomas, who has now set his sights on Nina.

This is a visual feast of a film. Aronofsky uses every trick in his bag and some reap massive rewards while others are substantially less successful. The horror elements blended into the film are mostly cliche cues we’ve seen a dozen times before. Reflections in mirrors do things the person isn’t doing, lights go out and a dark figure darts across the frame, faces morph and CGI bumps move around under the skin. One scene that is greatly effective is also very simple – Nina has submerged herself underwater in the bathtub and opening her eyes sees her double staring maniacally down at her. Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother is more effective and creepy than any tacked on thriller tropes.

The role Mila Kunis plays is mostly a MacGuffin and the lesbian scene seems to be in the film only for the sensationalist factor. It doesn’t add anything or further the plot. Winona Ryder pops up and does good work in a truly thankless role.

None of it is subtle – it is all over the top and taken to, I suppose, appropriately theatrical heights. It all works, for the most part, because of mesmerizing performances and Aronofsky’s bold visual flourishes. As impressive as Portman is and for all that Nina goes through, I think that it could have and should have gone further – I don’t feel that the character ever really cracks enough. For too much of the film Nina too closely resembles the ballerina figurine in her music box – too poised, too rigid. In the end, when Nina literally becomes the Black Swan, the film both succeeds and falters. Portman pulls the transformation off with aplomb, but some of the effects utilized – Nina’s neck elongating and looking like stretched rubber, her legs buckling and bending at an unnatural angle – are more ridiculous than riveting. Other bits – the rash on her shoulder sprouting tiny black feathers, her eyes glowing a demonic red and her possessed dance (during which she grows huge dark wings) are most remarkable.

I do have to compliment the music, by the always reliable Clint Mansell which is used to especially great effect and the cinematography by the brilliant Matthew Libatique. And I do commend any film that is this willing to fully follows its own vision, but in the end Black Swan is just a little too ambitious in its scope and a little too shallow and underwritten – especially considering there are three credited screenwriters. It takes us for a heck of a ride, but it never quite soars. B


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