A committed dancer struggles to maintain her sanity after winning the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake".A committed dancer struggles to maintain her sanity after winning the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake".A committed dancer struggles to maintain her sanity after winning the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake".
Nina Sayers has toiled for years and years in Thomas Leroy's New York ballet company. Having fallen on hard times, Leroy exiles his lead dancer and hopes that a fresh face in the company's upcoming version of "Swan Lake" will renew interest and revenue. Nina believes that she has what it takes to tackle the role of Swan Queen, and while Thomas chooses her for the part, he is adamant about her being able to nail both the pure innocence of the White Swan and the dark, sultry essence of the Black Swan. He doesn't feel that she is yet capable of pulling off the latter, but he suspects that she has the ability bottled up inside. Nina, ever the perfectionist, just needs to let herself go and perhaps explore her sexuality. Unfortunately, she's had to deal with an overbearing mother who has sheltered her to the point of psychological damage. Experiencing what she needs to in order to embody the Black Swan, combined with the pressure of the role and the paranoia over new girl, Lily, possibly being after her spot, may just push Nina over the edge.
"Black Swan" has been cited as a companion piece to "The Wrestler", and in many ways, it is. They even share similar instances of a pseudo-documentary shooting style. However, whereas the latter utilized such a style to create a heightened sense of realism, "Black Swan" takes the approach and creates a claustrophobic hell akin to something like Polanski's "The Tenant". It's a disorienting portrait of the madness that infects many who possess the desire to create art. Nina's sanity is in question early on, and from there, we are kept on our toes in relation to what is hallucinated and what is real. Speaking of being kept on one's toes, we get an up close look at how hard ballet is on the human body. As if the psychological turmoil wasn't enough for poor Nina, the physical toll is just as prominent.
As the ballerina seeking the pinnacle of perfection, Natalie Portman achieves that which her character so desperately desires. Her performance is a milestone, not only in her career, but in acting, period. Every ounce of praise directed toward her is richly deserved. Nina goes through a ringer of emotional changes, be it the sweet, delicate girl she starts out as, the rebellious grown-up Lily unleashes in her or the manic frenzy she's reduced to when things really get out of hand. Portman never misses a beat. When I first heard that Mila Kunis had been cast as Lily, I wasn't exactly thrilled. I'm happy to say that I was wrong about her, as she is terrific here. She made me forget all about her role on "That 70's Show". Vincent Cassel is also fantastic as Thomas Leroy, and his relationship with Nina is one of the film's strongest aspects. He had serious doubts about her, but he believed in her all the same. Enough so that he put his doubts aside and took the biggest possible risk on her. Barbara Hershey is unnerving as Nina's overprotective mother, and Winona Ryder makes the most of her brief role as Beth, the aging star whom Nina replaces.
Matthew Libatique's cinematography is beautifully realized. Combining the raw grittiness of the pseudo-documentary material with the nightmarish imagery of Nina's hallucinations and the elegance of the ballet, the film is a joy to behold. Clint Mansell's music, complete with elements from "Swan Lake", is also amazing, just as much a character as any breathing person on screen. I was disappointed that Mansell didn't have more of a presence in "The Wrestler", so I was happy to have him back in full force with "Black Swan".
Aronofsky is my favorite director to come along in the last 20 years or so. "Pi" was a solid debut, "Requiem for a Dream" is an utter masterpiece (still my favorite film in general), "The Fountain" is an underrated gem and "The Wrestler" is a strong character study. I'm pleased, but not surprised, to say that "Black Swan" is another film that further solidifies his position as a master filmmaker. As for Portman, she doesn't need the "Best Actress" Oscar to solidify how great she is. Besides, after Sandra Bullock "won" last year, they'll obviously give that award to anybody.
- Dec 22, 2010