Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder
Andres Heinz (Story), John J. McLaughlin (Screenplay), Mark Heyman (Screenplay)
Additional: Additional Footage Behind the Scenes Include Digital Copy Sensor Matic
It is impossible to watch Darren Aronofsky's near masterpiece Black Swan without recalling the similarly themed masterpiece The Red Shoes from 1948. While Black Swan doesn't quite soar to the heights of The Red Shoes, it is an astounding and mesmerizing film featuring a career-defining performance from Natalie Portman that will forever be mentioned as one of her truly great moments in what is destined to be a long career in Hollywood.
From his beginning with Pi, Aronofsky has proven himself to be a fearless director of trailblazing cinema. Even when he kinda sorta misses the mark, it is nearly impossible to not have the highest degree of respect for Aronofsky's boldness of vision and cinematic, well, balls. Aronofsky has proven able to take the simplest story and turn it into a sublime and revealing visual masterpiece, as he did with last year's The Wrestler and as he's done here once again with Black Swan.
Nina (Portman) is a dancer in a company at New York's Lincoln Center, ruled with a sort of George Balanchine type tyranny that blends talent, knowledge, sexuality and grace. In this case, the Balanchine figure comes in the form of Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), Thomas has cast aside the company's prima ballerina and his lover, Beth (Winona Ryder), and is preparing to cast for the lead in "Swan Lake." It is clear that Nina is the best dancer for the White Swan, yet Thomas doubts her ability to pull off the required opposite, Black Swan. Into the mix comes Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who has the free spirit and boldness, if not the technique, that Nina does not.
If you dismiss Black Swan because you fear it will simply be a "chick flick" or a simple ballet flick, then you will undoubtedly miss one of the year's finest cinematic performances in Natalie Portman's portrayal of Nina, a young woman who is so single-mindedly obsessed with success as a dancer that she has, as near as anyone can possibly tell, failed in virtually every possible way to develop as a healthy, functional human being. Even Nina's failure to truly move beyond her technical perfection into a more passionate performance is symptomatic of her life that has been filled with denied thoughts, feelings, impulses and experiences. Her single-minded focus has been encouraged by her mother (Barbara Hershey), a woman who seemingly loves her daughter to a point of uncomfortable and intimidating intimacy.
It is difficult to describe Black Swan without giving away far more than one should give away in reviewing the film or, for that matter, even discussing the film. The cinematic experience of Black Swan, and it is far more than simply watching a film, is akin to watching a psychological whirlwind of madness, mania, perfectionism, obsession and delusions. The film itself is excessively histrionic, a trait that will undoubtedly challenge some viewers yet a trait that remains faithful to the experience unfolding onscreen. Aronofsky, while clearly weaving the film's psychological tapestry, never seemingly takes sides with Nina, judging her to be possessing either madness or majesty. Instead, he simply allows her story to unfold and Portman surrenders herself completely to the experience in a performance that is simply mesmerizing to behold.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique paints the film with broad visual imagery reminiscent of early Polanski or even Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, imagery that fits both the beauty and grace of the unfolding ballet and the cracked world in which our scenario unfolds. While Portman may seem, at first thought, an odd choice for such a complex and intimately dark role, she is actually quite stunningly cast. Nina must, if she is to be convincing, be tremendously sympathetic, wondrous and vulnerable while still being able to project the sort of fragile brokenness that makes the audience accept her fragments without becoming repulsed by them and detaching from the cinematic experience. Nina's fractured soul is achingly beautiful and haunting and unforgettable.
Barbara Hershey turns in one of 2010's finest supporting performances as Nina's unrelentingly loving yet psychologically damaging mother, possessing an intimately brutal nature that is rivaled in the film only by Vincent Cassel's more outwardly exploitative Thomas Leroy, a man who seemingly believes that for a dancer to achieve greatness requires the willingness to dance inside the fiery pits of one's own inner dark demons. The weak link here is Mila Kunis, yet even Kunis gives a much better than expected performance. It's as if Kunis is pulled up to her highest potential by those around her and, in reality, her comic background works well for the increasing levels of absurdity that unfold here.
Black Swan may very well be a difficult film for some to embrace, a film that seemingly celebrates the absurdity, obsessiveness and delusional nature of such an obsession with artistic perfection. Yet, if only for the mastery of the film's performance, Black Swan is a film that practically demands to be seen and fully experienced.
As awards season nears, an Oscar nomination for Portman is assured and nominations for Hershey, Aronofsky and Libatique would not be unreasonable along with a Best Picture nomination for the film itself. Once again, Darren Aronofsky has created a film that is intellectually challenging, visually mesmerizing, emotionally shattering and, quite simply, unforgettable.
Black Swan is one of the best films of 2010.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic