Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan

Okay, I have been anticipating for Black Swan since May, and not one moment in the film did I ever ask I've waited this long for this? No, I was completely floored. Reading an excerpt interview with Darren Aronofsky talking about future projects including Black Swan, the question that I kept repeating was "How will Aronofsky fuse a film about ballet, suspense, and an erotic scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis together?" Almost like a paradox. You could imagine the excitement I had about this film. I've been intrigued about his place as a filmmaker ever since I saw The Wrestler two years ago. It progressed to a point where I needed to watch all of his films as a marathon, even the gritty Requiem For A Dream. To my surmise, he matured in Black Swan with elemental style and fragmentary pieces of Hitchcock, De Palma, and Polanski. I have no doubt that Black Swan will send other critics scrambling for thesaurus, not to find synonyms for courage, but to find variations on melodramatic, over-the-top, or "about as subtle as a grand piano pushed off a skyscraper."

Nina Sayers, played by the lovely Natalie Portman, an ambitious, dedicated ballerina living in New York City in a claustrophobic apartment with her overbearing stage mother, Barbara Hershey in an outstanding role. As Nina struggles to grow into her prime, cue all the pink interior in her bedroom, Swan Lake director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) appoints Nina with the staring role of the White Swan, taking over the role of the 'aging' Beth (Ryder in a small, yet engrossing role.) As productions begins, she proves herself that she is the epitome of the White Swan, however, Thomas begins to question her dual role as the Black Swan, played with eroticism and sensuality. This role may prove a challenge to her as newcomer rival, Lily (Kunis) swooping in to prove otherwise. Her efforts to find that erotic Black Swan in herself combined with the brutal physical toll of a professional dancer and not to mention, her mother's pressure starts to overwhelm her. Nina becomes unhinged, free-falling into her descent.

Aronofsky once again dwells on his themes of mental pain manifesting itself in physical punishment suggesting The Red Shoes by way of Requiem for a Dream, and for the first half the violence a dancer inflicts on her own body is all the horror we need. What embodies the film to turn into a well crafted old horror film, and by horror films, I'm refering to Polanski's Repulsion, the ability of the actors to reach to the dark depths of their talent. I may have doubted Mila's acting degree despite her resume sprucing full of comedy, but her take as the inhibited rival dancer proves she is a chameleon with her unnervingly wit and charm. Throughout the film, she plays along the ledge of whether she is taunting Sayers or this is all working itself out in Nina's mind. By the two thirds mark the accumulated details of Nina's terror have dragged us into a nightmare reality where we, along with her, find our bearings lost and the ground vanishing beneath our feet.

The dashing Frenchman, Vincent Cassel weaves us into the menacing characters, full of layers. He's full of vision, and knowing that Nina's inexperience with her sexuality, coaxes her into playing her character rather than coaxing her into bed instead. The standout in the supporting cast is Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother. She has long been one of our most reliable actresses but it feels like it's been ages since she's had an opportunity like this to prove just how formidable her talent is. She is electric, playing a smothering stage mother with a smile full of warmth. The mother/daughter relationship here has echoes of Carrie in the way she represses Nina and undermines her in everything she does. Listen closely to the way she wishes her luck, using just the right tone to let her daughter know that she expects failure.

Aronofsky is able to pull punches from the actors to morph them into the gritty and raw characters that comes from the twisted mind of his. The use of digital video is as lush and hallucinatory as anything he’s accomplished on film. Black Swan has a documentary quality, back-of-the-head shot seen especially in The Wrestler, a cinematic style of Aronofsky, signaling that we should give a feel what these characters are made of. The angst and challenges they endure bars nothing to what we expect. Black Swan goes as a companion piece to The Wrestler as a study of self destruction.

But as great as the supporting cast is this is Portman's show and she delivers a career-elevating triumph. Her character knotted in tension at all times, her every smile a mask of pain, Portman gives a performance that isn't just good, but is the kind of performance that is rare even among very good actresses - the kind where you have trouble coming up with the name of another actor capable of delivering anything close to it. She will get the obligatory comparisons to DeNiro's work in Raging Bull due to the astonishing physical transformation she undergoes. Not to diminish that transformation - it is breath-taking, there are long, unbroken shots where Portman is entirely convincing as a prima ballerina - but lots of actors have undergone similar technical changes to lesser dividends. What is truly impressive is that Portman doesn't just convince as a dancer, it's the way she convincingly dances in character. Throughout the movie we can chart Nina's mental state by observing her dancing. The opportunity to honor work of this caliber nearly justifies all the awards hoopla.

By all means, see this film. It is an amazing achievement, and to bluntly put it, Aronofsky deserves all the awards melted into one big statue. But really Natalie's ability to transform herself into a prima ballerina is an Oscar contender, hands down.

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