Sunday, December 19, 2010


review by Mark Pezzula

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

There are only a handful of directors currently working who can make a film that sends me from a theater buzzing with emotion and dizzy with the feeling that I just watched a small step in the evolution of cinema itself. There are an even smaller number who make me feel that way with every single one of their films. One of those filmmakers is Darren Aronofsky, whose new film, Black Swan, is his finest and most impressive work.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer, consumed with the art of ballet. When she's not dancing she's dreaming about it, and when she's done dreaming about it, she's living it. Her dream is to play that Swan Queen in her dance troupe's production of Swan Lake. So obsessed with the play is Nina that she begins to have paranoid delusions that new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), is trying to sabotage Nina's chances at obtaining the coveted role. Between trying to please her overprotective failed ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), wrestling with sexual feelings for her instructor Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and dealing with bodily injury - which threatens her dancing career, Nina slowly descends into a world of madness and self-destruction.

It's a world that Aronofsky has tackled in all of his films, beginning with his independent debut Pi and continuing through 2008's Academy Award nominated The Wrestler. In fact, Black Swan can be seen as a companion piece in theme, if not tone, to The Wrestler, with lead characters that are on the opposite ends of the same coin. Randy "The Ram" Robinson and Nina Sayers both exist with their lifelines tethered to their respective art - wrestling for Randy and ballet for Nina.

The difference, though, is that unlike Randy, who faced the reality of being an aging professional wrestler with a clarity that debilitated him internally, Nina externalizes her fear of that tether being severed, and her irrationality yields hallucinations and begets a mental collapse. Almost immediately we see that the world Nina occupies is left-of-center, and we acknowledge that it is of her own doing that her world is that way. Innocent and naive, Nina sabotages her passions again and again, with a flawed determination of reaching the impossibility of perfection. She sees Beth, the dancer she works to replace (Winona Ryder in a small, but effectively creepy role), as the epitome of what she strives for. The harder she strives, the easier it becomes for her mind to break from reality.

Aronofsky illustrates Nina's psychotic break with visual and auditory cues that are sometimes subtle, other times over-the-top. Whether it's slight sounds of flapping wings on a train, or a pair of eyes moving in a painting, the director constantly aims to unsettle the viewer. While the film is consistently tense throughout (until the last act, in which the intensity is ramped up to an almost unbearable degree), Aronofsky never lets the urge to frighten overtake his steady and controlled take of the drama unfolding. Like Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, Black Swan is horror movie that those who don't watch horror movies can enjoy, and will please even the most die-hard horror aficionado.

While there's relatively little gore in Black Swan, it does have its fair share of grotesque imagery, captured magnificently by Matthew Libatique's cinematography. The movie is a perfect example of a film with luscious photography that isn't all magic-hour horizons and blue sky back-dropped landscapes. Libatique and Aronofsky have been working together for so long that the director and cinematographer seem to function as one together, which is much to the benefit of Black Swan's endlessly fascinating series of sequences. Whether it be a choreographed ballet dance or a terrifyingly staged horror sequence, Libatique's camera lends Aronofsky's direction the exact tone and style needed for each scene. It's remarkable to watch.

Also remarkable to watch is Natalie Portman, who turns in not only the best performance of her career and the best performance of 2010, but what might actually end up being, years from now when I assess these sorts of things, one of my favorite performances by an actress ever. Portman has never been in command of a character as well as she is here. From her athletic execution of the dance sequences, to subtle facial expressions, it appears the actress threw herself into the role of Nina the way Nina attacks the part of Swan Queen. I don't want to sell Portman short, because I believe she's always been very talented, but I don't know if we'll ever see her reach the heights she has been to in Black Swan.

Not to be out done, Mila Kunis also impresses as the carefree, anything goes Lily. Seductive and outgoing in ways that Nina can and will never be, Kunis is equal parts sexy and sinister, and deadly effective in the role at that. It's easy to see why Nina has an attraction to Lily, as Kunis's large eyes express an intoxicating openness that invites those with lesser life-experience.

Furthermore, Vincent Cassel takes what might have been a one-note character and turns him into an authoritative figure with an unusual way of coaxing greatness from his students. While it's easy to think of Cassel's Thomas as nothing more than a manipulative sleazebag, Cassel injects a skewed humanity into the character who, while not lovable, is certainly more multifaceted and more likable than the script maintains.

Adding to the richness of the cinematography and acting is Clint Mansell's sumptuous score. Taking Tschaikovsky's theme from Swan Lake and building themes of horror and obsession on top of it, Mansell creates yet another effective score that you'll most likely recognize in trailers and movie ads years from now. (His Lux Aeterna piece from Requiem for a Dream has been used in numerous trailers, as has his work from The Fountain). Like Aronofsky's work with Libatique, the collaboration with Mansell creates moving images almost too powerful for the screen, and the three of them working together gives rise to the feeling of euphoria that hits me while watching an Aronofsky film.

It can not be overstated how well Black Swan works as a film, and how perfectly its elements come together to create a work of art that feels original and edifying. Some viewers may be exasperated by its deliberately paced narrative, which seems to sag mid-film. But those who open themselves up to its visual beauty, marvel at its innovative audio, and appreciate the highly skilled performances will find a film unlike most they've ever seen. It's unequivocally the best film of 2010.

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