Sunday, December 12, 2010

Movie review: Black Swan

With Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky delivers again.  The New York director/producer's latest film is brilliant.  And brilliance is what we have come to expect from him.  Aronofsky set a high bar for himself with his previous works:  π, The Wrestler, and the profound and horrific Requiem for a Dream.  But Black Swan is a jewel to match any in that crown.

It is the story of Nina Sayers, a professional dancer in a New York ballet company who is awarded the prima ballerina spot in the company's production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.  The lead role of the Swan Queen requires that Nina not only dance as the innocent White Swan, but also as the sensual, passion-driven Black Swan.  For Nina, living under the watchful eye of her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), the part of the White Swan is an easy fit.  It is the part of the Black Swan that presents problems.

The ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has doubts that Nina can find the necessary abandon for the darker role.  Meanwhile, a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), looms as Nina's ambitious alternate.  Lily is not as technically precise as Nina, but is more in touch with the dark passions required of the Black Swan.  Nina is also haunted by misgivings when she sees how easily cast aside and forgotten is the dancer whom she replaces, Beth (Winona Ryder).  Under the enormous pressure, Nina starts to exhibit symptoms of madness. She experiences hallucinations; she self-mutilates.

Aronofsky's flick shows us that dancing in a New York ballet company is a serious bit of business.  It exacts a terrible toll on those who undertake it.  The price goes far beyond the physical demands of the body; it ravages the mind as well.

This film will speak to many women, I think.  Aronofsky gives us an up-close look at the impossible demands that society makes on women.  We demand perfection; we demand sacrifice; we demand that women demand these things of themselves.

Natalie Portman's performance is wonderful.  And she is amply supported by the entire cast.  In particular, I found Barbara Hershey to be brilliant as Nina's creepy mother, wishing for her daughter's success, but being all too ready to accept her failure.

Aronofsky sometimes seems to exhibit a lack of trust in his audience.  Black Swan is another take on the classic alter-ego story, a las Joseph Conrad novella The Secret Sharer, or Truman Capote short story Miriam.  It's not that the ideas are ground-breaking or original. And yet, Aronofsky is not subtle with his symbols and imagery.  It's as if he is afraid we won't get it unless he spells it out for us.

But the film is so beautifully crafted, between the intimate and gripping camera work, the deftly wielded score (by Englishman Clint Mansell), and the powerhouse acting, that such complaints are scarcely worth mentioning.

In the early part of the flick, when Leroy, the company director, announces to the troupe that they will be performing Swan Lake, he says (as best I can remember) "[Swan Lake is] done to death, I know.  But not like we'll do it.  Stripped down and primal."  That, to me, was Aronofsky himself, speaking directly to his audience. 

In fact, I found that line to be a good summation of Aronofsky's work more generally.  With his unflinching eye, Aronofsky reveals the unvarnished reality of the world around us.

Black Swan is a great flick.  Go see it.


Anonymous said...

I remember how much I loved Swan Lake. That was the production I did the first year I taught and on the 10th anniversary and then again when I knew it would be my last production. It isn't here yet but I am waiting

Blessed Be, j

Darcy G said...

Thank you for the passionate review. I wasn't sure I wanted to see this film. The marketing campaign; the trailer, gives one the idea it may have a supernatural element and I am not a big fan of such. However, your persuasive review paints a clearer picture. I look forward to seeing it.