And so was this film. Like staring at Edvard Munch's The Scream and Van Gogh's Starry Night side by side, Black Swan is both gorgeous and at times horrifying. I've long been a fan of Darren Aronofsky's work, being a fan of his last outing "The Wrestler", which was just a marvelous comeback role for Mickey Rourke, and "Requiem For a Dream". Where as Wrestler played a bit more like your mainstream, behind the scenes world of wrestling, Black Swan is much more akin to the insanity that was Requiem. So, let us descend into this most stylish nightmare...
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) lives a somewhat sheltered life. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) being a former ballerina dancer herself, dotes upon her like you wouldn't believe since Nina also has a passion for dance, but this is simply one top layer to the film. There are subtle and not so subtle hints dropped early on that all is not as it seems with Nina. She has a clear history of mental issues and hurting herself that is explained through her mother's questioning of her behavior, which is it not surprising considering how much of a zealot her mother is for her daughter to be the perfect ballerina that she wasn't. Like "The Wrestler", we follow along right behind Nina as she walks from location to location from home to her ballet job, which is directed and coordinated by the fierce, passionate Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who selects Nina to be the Swan Queen for his production of 'Swan Lake'. While Nina makes for the perfect White Swan with her sweet, fearful nature, Lily (Mila Kunis) also impresses Leroy with her reckless, sensual performances, and casts her as Nina's alternate. As Nina practices and gets ready to be the Swan Queen, she struggles to pull off the Black Swan aspect of her ballet, and we see her intense, disturbing psychosis show literally more and more, becoming both a frightful and exotic transformation by the time she performs the Black Swan for her audience.
To say the acting was phenomenal is an understatement. Natalie Portman gives the performance of her young career here, and it is a sheer pleasure seeing how Aronofsky brought out every nuance in her facial expressions, her body language, and the way she reacts to those around her. While Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel are superb in every respect, this is Portman's vehicle, and Aronofsky keeps a very tight rein on following just her around. This style was used in 'The Wrestler' as well, with the story following Rourke's character around, but Wrestler didn't have the tightly wound psychology or transformation that Black Swan has with Portman. Where Rourke stayed pretty much the same douchebag he was at the beginning by the end, Portman's character evolves and gains confidence by the film's conclusion, although that confidence is gained at a steep price, with her sanity almost non-existent at that point and the audience falling down the rabbit hole with her into oblivion. If Natalie Portman does not win an Oscar for Black Swan, I will be pretty upset, because she proves time and again she is one of the finest young actresses out there (maybe 'the' finest young actress of her generation), and Aronofsky brings out the absolute best in her.
Special mention for an almost unrecognizable Winona Ryder as Beth, whom Leroy previously had a fling with, but is now heading down wash out road. While she's not in many scenes, she brings an intense, dangerous, almost downright vicious persona to her character. While I'm not her biggest fan, like everyone else, she just kills it here. I'd like to see her in another starring role now, bringing that type of A game with her.
I had some trepidation with the idea behind this film, though, with the plot being about ballerinas and what goes on behind the scenes between their performances, but within 15 minutes of the movie playing, that worry completely left my mind, as there is not a dull moment to be found here. If we're not watching Portman looking about as graceful as one can be while dancing (and getting chewed out by the demanding Cassel), set to a wonderful, perfect mood inducing score by Clint Mansell (which also deserves an Oscar, I haven't enjoyed a score from a drama this much since Schindler's List), then we are experiencing her doppelganger playing with her mind to scary effect. There were several moments that made me jump a little or make my hairs stand on end as we see the illusions that Nina sees. There are many moments where the transition from Lily into doppelganger Nina is just flawless and will unnerve you.
It shouldn't go without saying that the costumes used, both in Nina's dream at the beginning of the movie (a fabulously choreographed sequence), and the finale where she transforms in her mind into a literal black swan, were fantastic. This only adds to the already high quality craftsmenship of the rest of the film, but I was particularly impressed by that aspect. Portman simply looks beautiful and stunning in action.
Should also mention about the sexuality displayed in the film.. it seemed like everyone wanted to touch Portman's vagina. That is not a joke, either. If she wasn't masturbating in her room (a bit of a disconcerting scene to watch in a crowded theater..), or her dance director seducing her, or Lily seducing her, it seemed like everyone couldn't keep their hands off Portman's goodies. Not that I blame them lol. But even this is used in a substantial way, as the seduction Lily and Leroy use on Nina actually benefits her performance as the Black Swan, as through their actions she learns to let go and lose herself, which is what she initially lacked the ability to do. So while other films use sexuality merely for gratuity, Black Swan expertly uses it to advance its story.
Much can be praised about Aronofsky's way of only following our protagonist around as well. The film never veers off into what others are doing, only Nina. I can appreciate that, as it allows the audience to fall into this madness she experiences, and not allow for any breathing room. Again, this type of film making is why I consider Aronofsky several cuts above your average director, as he understands how to build and build the tension, a rising crescendo that never lets up until the credits roll. I can only imagine how awesome his vision of 'The Wolverine' will be when he tackles that project, it will probably be among the greats of comic book movies with his touch. While his style may not be everyone's favorite, it is certainly mine, and his tight focus of the main characters in his films pays off hugely with the effect it can cause with the audience. I might not have cared as much had we taken any side trips into Lily or Leroy's worlds, but Aronofsky wisely avoids this.
If you are looking to get your independent artistic fix, look no further then Black Swan. An exquisitely crafted thriller about a profession you wouldn't normally think this thrilling, and once again cementing Natalie Portman as the gem she is of Hollywood, and the artful, substantial mind of Darren Aronofsky. This film did not disappoint me in any which way, and I give it an A-. The '-' for ending :P This was my favorite movie of 2010. I'll be cheering you on come Oscars night, Ms. Portman. Definitely buying it Blu Ray :)
(All words, ideas are mine. I don't steal other people's works, and if you do, you're an unimaginative loser. Any similarities to other reviews is complete coincidence).