Black Swan ***
2011 is a very big year for Natalie Portman. She’s co-starring in one of the year’s big superhero movies, Thor, starring alongside Ashton Kutcher in adult romantic comedy No Strings Attached and co-starring in the new comedy from the director of Pineapple Express, Your Highness.
The one role that everyone is talking about right now, though, is her performance in Black Swan, a film which has already positioned itself as one of the frontrunners in this year’s awards race and has won Portman the award for best actress (drama) at this year’s Golden Globes. With a core concept that can undoubtedly be considered fresh and original – who would ever have thought that there would one day be a psychological thriller (or horror/or drama – it’s hard to say which) based in the world of ballet dancing? – Black Swan certainly is one of the more intriguing films that Portman is starring in this year. With a concept that director Darren Aronofsky conceived from two completely different unconnected ideas – he connected his viewings of an actual production of Swan Lake with an unrealized screenplay about understudies and the notion of being haunted by a double, similar to the folklore surrounding doppelgangers – the idea behind the film is one that is so bizarre that the film really has to be seen just to see what on earth it is actually about and with Aronofsky’s last film The Wrestler – which was highly overrated in this critic’s opinion – having also been a major awards contender, receiving two Oscar nominations (for best actor and best supporting actress) and best actor (drama) at the Golden Globes, Aronofsky’s involvement alone is something that is bringing a lot of attention to this film. What’s more, Aronofsky has said that he considers Black Swan to be a companion piece to The Wrestler, recalling one of the early projects that he developed about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballerina which he eventually separated into these two movies because he thought that the words of wrestling and ballet were “too much for one movie”, and with both films involving demanding performances for different kinds of art. With the incredible word of mouth surrounding Black Swan you would expect something truly sensational. Depending on your own personal taste in film, you may or may not get this.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her obsessive former ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who exerts a suffocating control over her. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side – a recklessness that threatens to destroy her
Black Swan is a very difficult film to classify. Is it an insightful psychological drama exploring the tough world of ballet dancing, an intense psychological thriller about the darkness that can exist within even the most innocent of individuals, a twisted psychological horror with firm supernatural undertones or a combination of all three. It really is hard to say but, whatever the case, it is a film that frequently shocks, whether it be in the form of extremely suggestive dialogue and visual imagery, a rather graphic lesbian love scene involving Nina and Lily, numerous scenes depicting Nina experiencing an orgasm, a scene showing Nina tripping out, scenes that verge on body horror – with Nina pulling off her own fingernail and Beth stabbing herself in the face with a knife – or the film’s warts and all depiction of the brutal reality of the tough competitive art form that is ballet dancing – something that this film shares in common with ‘The Wrestler’, that film every bit as graphic and intense in its depiction of the wrestling art form as this one is in its depiction of ballet. If shock value equalled pure quality then this film might be great – and in the eyes of some the film may well be – but, just as with Aronofsky’s last film, I can’t help but feel that the whole thing is extremely overrated and that many of the same flaws that were present in that film are also present here. It’s not that the film is badly made as this certainly isn’t the case and the acting, in particular, deserves all the accolades it is getting. The acting really is sensational. Natalie Portman starts out sweet and fragile, at first embracing the virginal innocence of the White Swan and, as the film progresses, undergoing a transformation into a more sinister and seductive individual, embracing the darker nature of the Black Swan. Portman’s metamorphosis from virginal innocent to deranged seductress is convincing, shocking and terrifying and she proves completely believable as her character becomes more and more mentally unhinged, the look of terror on her face as paranoia sets in seeming completely authentic. Her performance is truly excellent and carries the film but the rest of the cast excel too. Mila Kunis’ performance is a bit more one sided, her role lacking an outright innocent side, but, in creating a character who genuinely seems like a credible threat to Nina, she does an excellent job, embodying a feel of pure passion in her performance and making her character’s rise seem completely effortless. Portraying Nina’s overly obsessive mother, Barbara Hershey has a calmly sinister vibe about her and often seems very creepy and occasionally borderline psychotic, something that it makes it very easy to see why Nina is so fragile and damaged. As the emotionally damaged and extremely fragile former star who is being forced to retire, Winona Ryder is also appropriately unhinged in her performance. And Vincent Cassel comes across as perfectly suave and charming but with a slightly darker, perhaps even perverse, side that he manages to capture well. In addition to the acting, the dancing is also superb. The dance sequences are choreographed to perfection and the fact that it actually is the actors doing the dancing in many scenes makes it all the more impressive – although scenes involving more complex dance moves were done with professional dancers.
Something else that the film achieves successfully is creating a realistic look and feel. The shaky camera style lends the film a documentary-esque look and feel, something which gives the film a raw and real look, which heightens the sense of realism, and the film’s considerable insights into the tough life of a ballet dancer all prove to be very authentic, showing us close-up detail of the daily routines of the ballet dancer characters along with the injuries they sustain in the pursuit of their art. We hear the sound of toes and bones cracking – one scene, in particular, involving a physical therapy session is actually real as Natalie Portman had sustained an injury during filming and needed therapy to recover, the actual session she underwent being the one in the film – as well as seeing all the broken toenails and fingernails, cuts and scrapes, all things that may make you wince. The brutality shown really does seem authentic. Another thing the film is successful at is creating genuine chills. A chilling and unnerving sense of malevolence is established from the outset and there is a feeling that things are off kilter throughout, something that is never better visualised than in a shot showing a music box with a ballerina figure that has had its arms and legs broken off. Additionally, there are some very chilling effects using mirrors, a sequence involving a wall of sinister looking paintings coming to life creates some real menace and, all dolled up as the Black Swan, Natalie Portman really is quite a frightening vision. Every glimpse of Nina’s doppelganger in the background creates chills too and this element really adds an extra layer to the story. Like appearances of Nina’s doppelganger herself, the doppelganger element largely features in the background of the story, the primary focus being entirely on Nina and her increasingly fragile and damaged emotional state, of which the doppelganger element is of course a part. As much as I found myself enchanted by Natalie Portman’s incredible performance, however, the overall film just did not have the same impact. I can’t escape the feeling that the plot here is one that is very lacking and that Darren Aronofsky seems far more focused on trying to shock than actually delivering an all round great film. Perhaps I just don’t really get it and the whole thing is open to interpretation but for all the film’s strengths it just left me cold. Some will consider this high art but personally I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Like all art it certainly isn’t for everyone. Black Swan is a film that only a rather twisted mind could possibly have conceived and while it is certainly different, I found it to be an extremely deranged and twisted (in this critic’s opinion) non masterpiece that is highly overrated.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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