RATING (0 TO ****): ****
The very best films always accomplish two things -- they strive meticulously
to get all of the small details right, and they so captivate viewers that
everyone sits mesmerized with their eyes glued to the screen. BLACK SWAN,
easily the best movie of the year, had such an impact on me that I sat
staring zombie-like at the closing credits, unable to move.
The heart and soul of the production is a raw and breath-taking performance
by Natalie Portman. She gives what has to be the best performance of the
year. She should be a shoo-in to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Playing a frigid, virginal woman named Nina Sayers, Portman is a
twenty-eight-year-old professional dancer whose home life has long been
frozen at that of a twelve year old. Surrounded by stuffed animals and
suffocated by a domineering "mommy" (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her
career for her daughter, Nina tells us her life story through her frightened
and painfully insecure expressions. She doesn't need to talk about her
emotional pain, we see it in her face, which always appears in danger of
melting through its unbearable accumulation of worries and woes.
Nina isn't a struggling ballet dancer slowing working her way up. When we
meet her she is in line to be awarded the most coveted dancing position of
the year. Trying out for the role of the Swan Queen in the opening
performance of the New York City Ballet's new version of Swan Lake, she
would appear to be on her way to having it all and to be envy of every
ballerina in town. But one look at her, and you'd assume that she was
living a death sentence from some terminal illness.
>From the beginning, as we watch Nina nurse her banged up and cut up feet and
we observe her working with the skills of a cobbler to craft her new toe
shoes into shape, we realize that this is a movie obsessed with the smallest
of details. Nina too is an obsessive perfectionist, which, in her case,
proves to be her downfall.
Vincent Cassel plays Thomas Leroy, the head of the ballet company. When he
speaks -- or doesn't -- all eyes are on him, since he is god in his realm,
with the power to make or break any dancer's career. Currently showing the
door to Beth Macintyre, played by an unrecognizable Winona Ryder, Thomas has
the power to declare the exact moment when a dancer will henceforth be
considered over-the-hill and ready for involuntary retirement.
Nina is Thomas's new "Little Princess" as Thomas likes to refer to his
current female star. Thomas is full of demands on Nina. He wants her to
play the role of both the White Swan and the Black Swan. Her unflinching
dedication and her need for precise control make her the perfect White Swan.
But Thomas wants a Black Swan who dances with an uncontrolled and wanton
passion. Anything but a seductress, Nina appears incapable of transforming
herself for the part. With dual motivations, only one of which is
semi-honorable, Thomas sees it as his responsibility to introduce Nina to
the excitement of sexual pleasures.
And that's only the set up to the plot.
With beautiful ballet dancing throughout and with Tchaikovsky's luscious
music flowing through most scenes, the movie is a sumptuous treat. No mere
musical, however, the movie increasingly becomes an examination of a dark
descent into madness.
I challenge you not to be transfixed by Portman's performance. Sure, it can
sometimes be quite frightening to watch, but it is impossible to take your
eyes off of her character, one of the most vulnerable that I've ever seen.
A real tour de force, Portman's work is one not to be forgotten and hard to
ever be surpassed. Personally, I could watch this movie again and again
without ever tiring of it.
BLACK SWAN runs a fast 1:48. It is rated R for "strong sexual content,
disturbing violent images, language and some drug use" and would be
acceptable for older teenagers.
The film is opening in a staged release now in the United State. In the
Silicon Valley, it will be showing at the AMC theaters, the Cinemark
theaters and the Camera Cinemas beginning on Friday, December 10, 2010.
CAPSULE: An ingenue ballerina has to dance as if
she has a corrupt and worldly side she does not
really have in a production of "Swan Lake". At
the same time she has this challenge there may be
plots against her to steal her coveted role. Is
the pressure she feels warping her psychologically
or is the threat real? Darren Aronofsky borrows
from David Cronenberg in this surreal view of the
high-pressure realm of professional ballet. The
film is strange and beautiful to look at, but it
also treads the melodramatic edge of a horrific
surrealism. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
In the world of classical ballet little is what it really seems to
the audience. To balance en pointe, rising up and balancing ones
entire weight the tips of ones toes seems light, graceful, and even
slyph-like. In fact, it is crushingly painful on the toes. The
life of a ballerina in an elite ballet company looks as light as a
dream, but it is a nightmare of hard work and stiff competition.
To Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) the problems may go
beyond the artistic achievement. The dual role of the White Swan
and the Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" is so coveted that
people might do anything to get it. Nina suspects there are
conspiracies against her. Are they real or imagined? The former
star of the company, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is leaving,
though not entirely gracefully, she seems to blame Nina. Then there
is the aggressive Lily (Mila Kunis), ready to push out Nina given
the slightest opening. More pressure comes from the creative
director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell, who played the lazy son in
EASTERN PROMISES). Finally there is Nina's mother Erica (Barbara
Hershey looking like a victim of too many face lifts) herself a
former ballerina. Erica's demands on Nina's career the daughter
can never hope to fulfill, but who is more than willing to dominate
her daughter and force her daughter to those goals.
Nina is young and fresh and beautiful. It is a quality that helps
her play the good White Swan. But Thomas does not think that Nina
can do the dark Black Swan role. It would be like casting Kiera
Knightly as Rosa Kleb. The role of the Black Swan does not call
for young and fresh. Thomas wants Nina to give herself a sexual
awakening that will be reflected in her darker performance. His
interest may not be carnal, but he thinks she needs to be more
sexually experienced to dance the role.
There have been films before that have shown the demands of ballet.
In particular there was THE RED SHOES (1948)--to which this film
pays tribute--and THE TURNING POINT (1977). But what we see here
we have not seen on the screen before. The world of the ballet
company has always seemed a little pristine and rarified. It
hardly seems to be a setting for a thriller with horrific
overtones, though this film does and so did THE RED SHOES.
Aronofsky shows us the pain behind the performance, physical and
psychological. We see Nina's skin, toenails, and even her eyes
rebelling at the demands of the art. At times the physical effects
are even a little revolting and reminiscent of David Cronenberg's
It might have been more interesting to build the film around a less
familiar ballet. Even Thomas, the creative director, seems at
first bored at the prospect of re-doing "Swan Lake". But in the real
world what other ballets does the public generally know? Still the
touch having every music box and every cell phone playing the music
of "Swan Lake" is just a bit much. Aronofsky builds the tension
slowly but by the third act the tension is real enough.
This movie is an experience that is constantly transforming into
something unexpected. Just as Nina needs both a light and dark
side and needs to go from one to another, so does Aronofsky. A
theme that runs through his work is the dark undercurrents of
things that seem innocent. But he is more subtle with it---and
hence more credible--than a David Lynch. I rate BLACK SWAN a +2 on
the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0947798/>
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Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper