Saturday, February 5, 2011

Black Swan


Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Nina Sayers (Portman) is a highly skilled, but reserved ballerina who has never had a principal role in her ballet company. When principal ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) ages out and is forced into retirement, Sayers is chosen by the ballet's director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) for the dual role of Odette and Odile in The Black Swan. Though Sayers is ecstatic upon winning this coveted and challenging role, her happiness turns to fear and paranoia when she has to contend with Lily, (Kunis) a free-spirited and talented new member of the company who seems after her to take the role away, Leroy's constant doubts of her ability to bring passion to the role, and her mother's (Barbara Hershey) expectations of her.

Darren Aronofsky loves to put his actors through the wringer, and from all of the physicality and pain (both physical and emotional) he draws amazing performances out of actors you didn't know had it in them, or perhaps were past their prime. I never thought that Jared Leto or Jennifer Connelly were anything but pretty faces before seeing Requiem for a Dream (and I can't even express how surprised I was by the depth of Marlon Wayans' performance in that film), and Mickey Rourke had a celebrated comeback with The Wrestler with a performance that was better than anything he did in his heyday. Natalie Portman has always shown a precocious ability to act, especially with her first film, Leon (The Professional), but her career has kind of mirrored her character's progression in Black Swan. She was always competent, even good, but it took being pushed to the brink (she famously suffered injuries during a brutal rehearsal regimen) to get the outstanding performance she gave in Black Swan. Teetering on the verge of fragility and mania throughout most of the film, it was riveting and sometimes exhausting to witness Sayers' ascent/descent.

Black Swan boasts a very strong supporting cast as well, and again, I was surprised by the talent. Mila Kunis, primarily a television actress, brought a sexy and mysterious edge to her character that could have easily been overdone, but there was an ease and naturalness to the portrayal. Barbara Hershey's Erica isn't going to win Mom of the Year anytime soon, and her obsessive and sometimes menacing role made me temporarily forgive her for Beaches. Winona Ryder was both terrifying and tragic as an aging diva, and Vincent Cassel, who I thought was miscast before seeing the film ended up being perfect for the role.

This is not a film for the faint-hearted, and it's not pleasant to watch. Though the world of ballet is beautiful to an audience, when the layers are peeled back, there is a lot of pain, both emotional and physical, that achieve that beauty. When madness and obsession are added into the mix, that makes for a very dark film. My boyfriend and I caught a matinee on Christmas in between family parties during one particularly ghastly moment in the film I turned to him and said, "Merry Christmas honey!" However, there were also at least 150 other people at this screening, so obviously we weren't the only weirdos.

I can't think of a point during the film where my attention waned or I thought the pacing was off. If I had any complaints about the film, it would be some of the more graphic, kind of gross physical moments, but then again, they really worked in the context of the film, so I can't count that as a valid complaint, it's just my old, squeamish stomach. Black Swan was high on my Best of 2010 list during a year when I saw a lot of really good movies, because as a thriller, it really hit all of the right notes - just be prepared to not feel especially uplifted after.

4 out of 5 stars

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