Black Swan (2010)
Reviewed by Nomad
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
I always find it odd the way studios allow marketing to dictate what a film has to offer to the public. Watching the trailers for Black Swan, you get a serious Single White Female vibe with supernatural overtones. Those ideas don’t even come close to describing what Darren Aronofsky has created, nor do they do justice to this work of art.
Nina Sayers (Portman) lives a tedious life under the thumb of her obsessively controlling mother (Hershey), striving only for perfection in every facet of her performances as a ballerina. We are told that her mother had something of a career in dance as well, but she gave that up to give birth to Nina (in her own words). As the movie unfolds, you get the sense that either she wasn’t good enough to live out the dreams she has for her daughter or perhaps didn’t have the guts to push harder and take the lead. This creates the perfect evil stepmother character for this dark fairytale, locking her daughter away in a tower, insisting on perfection in life and her work, but at the same time almost suggesting that she isn’t good enough to become a star and assuring her a lesser role is nothing to be ashamed of.
As a mixed bag of blessing and curse, Nina is chosen to play the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake, a revelation that thrills and terrifies her all at once. Thomas (Cassel), the head of the company, is convinced Nina can play the fragile, beautiful White Swan to perfection, but to embody the Black Swan, she must abandon all the things that keep her safe and let herself go. As consequence would have it, a young dancer named Lily (Kunis) has just joined the company, and her effortless dance style and reckless abandon in living life are exactly what Thomas is saying Nina is missing. Nina's world spirals around her as she struggles to obtain the key element that will make her performance flawless as the date of their opening rushes toward her like a train dislodged from its tracks. Amid the chaos it seems Lily would encourage Nina to wait until the last second before leaping from its path…or is her goal to watch Nina fall so she can take center stage? Embracing the essence of the Black Swan may just break her in the end.
To say this film is dark is an understatement. Portman plays Nina with a soft voice and a timid smile, always saying please and thank you and even quicker to apologize. We are tied to her hand as she is smothered by her mother, ridiculed by her fellow dancers, pushed by Thomas, and thrown into oncoming traffic (figuratively) by Lily. It amazed me that a film could create such intimate space as this, allowing the audience members to feel they are by the main character’s side through every triumph and horror, making her downward spiral all that much more raw. There are times when you want nothing more than to shield your eyes, but a part of you regrets leaving Nina alone! Stark silences give the film an indie feeling, but more importantly, they create an empty space in which you can almost hear Nina thinking, frantically. The tone creates unease and acts as a counterpoint to the moments of chaos (signaled by a key sound I won’t give away), sending Nina running into the night, and we are dragged along with her, willing or not. All of these elements may seem off-putting to the reader, but when they are coupled with stellar performances from every face on the screen, the moments are elevated to a state of tragic, haunting beauty. I’ve often thought the music and art that stays with me the most is that which makes my heart ache. Black Swan succeeds in this.
On a very basic level some will be drawn to this film due to images of transformation and supernatural occurrence. In the trailer we see Nina’s mirrored reflection seemingly turning against her and the manifestation of the Black Swan in her eyes and pulled from her back. Without spoiling the surprises for you, I will say there are many jarring moments like this, allowing you to pause to deliberate on what might be real and what is the symptom of a mind fracturing beyond repair. In the final scenes you are going to see some fantastic special effects makeup, and for a few of you this will make the entire film worth it. I only counted one CGI gimmick in the entire film that I thought was heavy-handed and overly done, especially compared to the subtlety of other moments played against that jarring, all encompassing silence. Of course the finale is supposed to be when these small touches pile up and bloom into a spectacle, and in Black Swan I can’t even begin to prepare you for what’s to come. Without building it up to ridiculous proportions, I’ll just say the moment is creepy and surreal and amazing to look at. I can see myself replaying it at least twice for new watchers when I own it on Blu-ray in the future!
Black Swan is an incredible achievement in cinema today. Amid a landscape of rehashed ideas and reinvented images, it is almost as if Aronofsky taunts filmmakers by saying, "This is my version of Swan Lake, but I challenge you to call it a remake." He even goes so far as to put the characters' roles in the ballet alongside their characters' names in the credits to assure you of his intent. I’ve always said it is the cerebral films with haunting imagery that affect me the most, recalling Jacob’s Ladder when asked for an example. The horror isn’t some monster in the dark. It is all around you, perhaps even waiting to consume you from within. Black Swan takes the essence of all horror films and gives it new life. In all good horror there are several points at which a potential victim must flee the safety of her hiding place for a chance to survive the night. In Black Swan Nina must leave behind the safety of her sheltered life to embrace the immortality she craves with all her heart. Only one question remains: Will she survive the experience?
5 out of 5
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