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With: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin, based on a story by Andres Heinz
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use
Running Time: 107
Date: 31/08/2010
IMDB

Black Swan (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lake of Fire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Black Swan is only Darren Aronofsky's fifth feature film, but it strikes me as the culmination of his career so far. He has given us the sci-fi/fantasy films Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006), and the harrowing Requiem for a Dream (2000), in which Ellen Burstyn slowly comes emotionally unraveled. In 2008, he switched directions with a somewhat realistic melodrama, The Wrestler; it still utilized some of his trademark touches (such as his famous "following from behind" shot), but on a much lower-budget and grittier scale. Black Swan combines all those elements, and more. Like The Wrestler, it focuses on a very physical performance -- by Natalie Portman -- and it looks and feels fairly low-budget and gritty. However, this one is also about an emotional unraveling, and -- like Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) -- this one may or may not be supernatural in origin.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, and if she doesn't get an Oscar nomination for this awesome performance, then I'll eat my hat. Nina is a New York City ballet dancer who concentrates on precision. She's a bit of a doormat, living under the thumb of her domineering stage mother (Barbara Hershey), and frozen in the role of a little girl, her room filled with music boxes and stuffed animals. The director of her company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that he wants to do a tough, fresh version of "Swan Lake" for the new season. He knows Nina can play the pretty role of the good White Swan, but he's not so sure she can handle the seduction, darkness and abandon of the Black Swan.

It's a fairly basic Hollywood setup about an uptight character learning to loosen up, but the screenplay, by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, gives her a natural world of tension and discomfort. It's not that she's an annoying misfit, sticking out from a "normal" world. This world created her and she fits into it. Several characters surround her and help to shape her. Her mother at first seems caring and sweet, but a well-timed scene involving a celebratory cake lets us know precisely who she is. The ballet director, Thomas, isn't above playing emotional games with Nina to try to tap into her dark side. He kisses her and barks, "That was me seducing you. Now you have to seduce me."

We also meet Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the company's faded star who isn't going to retire gracefully. Visions of Beth's sour puss keep haunting the tender and fragile Nina, whose face now graces the company's poster. Then comes Lily (Mila Kunis), fresh from San Francisco. She's the opposite of Nina; she's sloppy in her dancing but very earthy and erotic. Lily takes a special interest in Nina, but like her mother, it's not clear whether this connection is based on respect or on sabotage. Could all these characters be Nina's alter egos?

Nina begins seeing things, or rather, experiencing things, that are like a battle between her light and dark side, between rigidity and looseness. Unfortunately, this dark side does not necessarily represent freedom; it's no more beautiful or attractive than the light side. And so Nina is pulled and buffeted between the two sides. She sees visions of a more confident, more frightening version of herself. She stands up to her mother. She goes out for a night on the town with Lily; we root for Nina to get in touch with her dark side, but what happens only causes more and deeper wounds.

Aronofsky visually details this battle with great power, clashing cramped and open spaces, light and darkness, and of course using the ballet footage itself. Like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), this isn't specifically a ballet film, and it's geared for people who know little or nothing about the ballet (even the story of "Swan Lake" is outlined for those of us that did not know it). Portman herself is a huge part of all this, turning in an awe-inspiring emotional and physical performance. Her tiny frame looks even tinier here, her body fat worked away into tendons, sinew and sweat. This is not a ballet of pure beauty; it also consists of hard work and pain and heartbreak. (I'm not sure exactly how much work Portman put into this movie, but it was enough to be totally convincing, and that can't have been any small amount.)

Again, the basic idea here has been told in dozens of Hollywood movies, but Black Swan elevates it to art through Aronofsky's vivid personal vision and through a brave and unfaltering dedication to the emotional power within. I'm thinking again of the climactic ballet, which seems like both a triumph and an irreversible mistake, a plunge that can never be reversed. It's remarkable how similar the final images here are to the final images in The Wrestler, which I won't discuss yet, but which are worth more than a thousand words. I want to go back and see Black Swan again, but as of now I'm declaring it a major achievement.

Fox's Blu-Ray comes with one really good, long behind-the-scenes featurette, and a whole bunch of little, promotional ones. No commentary tracks or anything like that, but this is one movie that deserves to be seen as big as possible.

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