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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Black Swan

January 25th, 2011
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I’m not really sure quite how to put this so I’ll just go ahead and say it:

Black Swan freaked me the fuck out.

And I pretty much loved every second of it.

The one-two punch of The Fountain and The Wrestler have made me a big, big fan of Darren Aronofsky, and with Black Swan he’s pretty much made me a fan for life.  Black Swan is one of the most viscerally engaging experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre in quite a while.  The film is intense and erotic and gruesome and it grabbed me by the guts and never let go.  It only squeezed harder as the film built to the absolutely wonderfully madcap insane final twenty-or-so minutes.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is cast as the lead in her theatre company’s new production of Swan Lake.  The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), knows that Nina has the technical perfection to play the White Swan half of the role, but he worries that her dancing is too cold, too polished, for her to embody the more sensual Black Swan half.  As Nina pushes herself harder and harder to satisfy Thomas, things start to fall apart for her in a big way.

Right from the beginning, Mr. Aronofsky and his team establish a creepy vibe for the film.  Nina is clearly an extremely tightly wound creature, so one immediately knows that the pressure of the starring role might be trouble.  This concern is only magnified when we’re given a glimpse of her home life.  Nina still lives with her mother (played by Barbara Hershey), and it’s clear that the two have a very weird relationship in which Nina seems to be extraordinarily infantilized.  For example, her little room is decked out with stuffed animals and other pink, frilly things as if she were as seven year-old girl.  There’s a great scene in which Nina is reluctant to eat a cake that her mom has bought her to celebrate her being given the lead role in Swan Lake, and her mom’s extreme reaction to this minor rejection clearly indicates that this co-dependant relationship is fraught with problems.

As the tension and pressure on Nina builds, things get creepier and weirder.  The film really plays with the notions of reality.  We never quite know if what we’re seeing is real or just in Nina’s head.  There are a few really quick, subtle visual effects shots that are dropped in at just the right moments to give the audience (and Nina!) a jolt.  Mr. Aronofsky’s camerawork also serves to keep the audience on our toes.  We’re continually pushed right up close to the characters’ faces.  The cinematography really keeps the viewer right in the thick of what’s going on.  We’re thrown into Nina’s perceptions of what’s happening, and as she starts to lose her grip, so too do we.  It’s a really clever approach to the storytelling in the film.

It’s all anchored, of course, by Natalie Portman, who is magnificent.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her be better.  Here face and her eyes are captivating.  She makes us feel every high and low that Nina experiences.  One can’t look away.  And the physicality of the role is astounding.  I’m not sure if or when doubles or visual effects were involved, but it sure looks to me like Ms. Portman was doing most if not all of the dancing herself.  This is made clear right from the beautiful prologue oto the film, in which we start with a long-shot of a woman, dressed in white, dancing, and then the camera rushes in and we can see that it’s Ms. Portman who we’ve been watching.  (Discussing the dancing in the film during an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Aronofsky stated: “Ninety percent of what you see is Natalie, unretouched.”)

Mila Kunis plays Lily, another dancer in the troupe.  I always liked Ms. Kunis in That ’70s Show, and to my mind she’s long-since broken out from the Jackie character she played for so long by her great performances in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But if one had any doubt about her range as an actor, this film should put that to rest.  She’s called upon to play a whole gamut of emotions in the film — from kind to vicious to regretful to manipulative, as Nina’s perceptions of her shift and flow — and she nails every one.  I also really dug Vincent Cassel’s performance as Thomas.  He’s created a fascinating character.  We see the charisma and the artistic brilliance in Thomas that Nina sees, but we also see the cruel, domineering way in which he treats her in an attempt to draw out from her the performance he envisions.  It’s great to see Winona Ryder in the film.  She plays Beth, the former star of the company who has been pushed aside because of her age.  It’s a small role, but Ms. Ryder makes her scenes count.  Her presence haunts the film, and Nina, even when she’s not around.

There are a number of moments and images from Black Swan that I’m finding hard to shake, and I keep revisiting little details about the film that really impress me.  For instance, I really enjoyed how the White Swan/Black Swan split from Swan Lake is embodied throughout the film by the careful use, by the filmmakers, of black and white.  It’s really interesting to note who and what is in white or black, and when, as the film unfolds.  I loved the score of the film.  I loved the moment at which Mr. Aronofsky chose to end the film.  I could go on and on.

I never thought I’d love a film about wrestling, and I sure as heck never thought I’d love a film about ballet.  Darren Aronofsky and his team have crafted something really special.  Be prepared for a tough but thrilling movie-going experience.  If you haven’t yet seen it, don’t wait any longer!

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