Film Review: Black Swan (2010)

The emotional and psychological state of an artist can be a very fragile thing. For a professional, their livelihood depends on opening themselves up for everyone to watch and examine. The work is often thankless and stress runs rampant during the rehearsal period. Black Swan, the latest feature from director Darren Aronofsky, is a portrait of an artist struggling to breakthrough the competitive world of ballet. Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, has been performing with the Lincoln Center ballet company for four years without earning a major role from director Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel. When Thomas announces the company will be doing a revolutionary new interpretation of Swan Lake, he is determined to cast a new leading lady to play both the Black Swan and the White Swan in the production. Nina will do anything to get and keep her first leading role.

While thrillers set in the world of stagecraft are nothing new, Black Swan successfully reinvents the formula without eliminating any of the standard elements. There are backstage tragedies, jealous company members declaring revenge on the new ingenue, and even the young performer who might be willing to do anything to replace the new lead. The difference from prior films in this style is the focus on the psyche of one character. This is not to say the film has no plot or only functions as a character study. That is simply not the case. You, as an audience member, have to work to pull all the threads together that surround Nina, though they are laid out nicely for you in the narrative.

Natalie Portman gives a performance that rivals the work of Catherine Deneuvre in Repulsion and Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby. Nina is a challenging role for many reasons. Her interactions with other characters shift erratically throughout the film, seemingly without reason. She has fantasies and delusions about what is or is not happening around her. And, trickiest of all, she is a beautifully trained, highly-technical ballerina obsessed with perfection. If you know anything about the world of dance, one of the hardest things a performer can do is dance en pointe--literally, on the point, or on the toes--and Portman provides her own dance work in the film. It's not lightweight choreography, either; she repeatedly has to visit dance moves that take years to master. Unlike an actual ballerina in rehearsal, Portman has to play a very conflicted character while achieving this level of dance perfection throughout the film. It is a breathtaking role that should prove once and for all how talented an actress she is.

The supporting cast in this film is excellent in roles that switch from character to caricature and back. The young upstart who may be out to get Nina is Lily, played by Mila Kunis. The most troublesome part about Kunis' performance is how many people believe she's played this character before and isn't challenged here; it's a ridiculous notion that shows bias against young actors, especially those who started in television. Kunis is playing two very different roles within the film and never oversells either the hyper-sexualized social climber nor the comforting friend.

Where lesser actresses would have overplayed every scene to Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? theatrics, Kunis keeps her acting very naturalistic and understated. She has explosive scenes that feel more real than any other plot device in the film. In a film about rising from the thankless chorus to a starring role, Kunis has the actual thankless role that is far more challenging than the audience will ever consistently give her credit for.

As the director of the company, Vincent Cassel has a very standard role. He is the typical hard-nose director pushing his performers to the breaking point. Cassel imbues Thomas with a much needed sense of humanity and pleasure to prevent the character from turning into a monster. His performance does not deny the source of his character's reputation among the company, but he doesn't conform to the lecherous director taking advantage of innocent youths for his own gain, either.

Barbara Hershey, as Nina's overly-protective mother, and Winona Ryder, as the aging star of the ballet company, have the bombastic characters you would expect in this style of thriller and they play the parts well. Hershey is the scary stage mother, controlling every aspect of her daughter's life and obsessing over every nuance of the ballet company. It is a very controlled performance with a lot more depth than can usually be expected in such a role. Ryder's character is surprisingly flat and static, though her portrayal of the character's desperation never feels overly calculated or gimmicky. She is the starlet forced into retirement and she will do anything to keep the limelight on her.

While the film is structured as a showcase of Nina, the true star of Black Swan is the production design. From the make-up effects--Nina gets injured a lot and Aronofsky spares us no drop of blood--to the sound design--can you imagine the ravishing effects of eight hour days en pointe on the human body?--to the costume design, no detail is overlooked that can draw a less experienced viewer into the film. You will leave the theater with a better understanding of the physical demands of professional dance even if the story crafted is pure fantasy.

Special recognition should go to the work of Clint Mansell (composer) and Matt Dunkley (orchestrator/conductor) for adapting Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake into a dark and brooding musical landscape for Aronofsky and company to play on. Though there is much original scoring in the film, the music is so clearly defined by Tchaikovsky's seminal work that Mansell will most likely be deemed ineligible for the Academy Award; Dunkley's work orchestrating the difficult music of Swan Lake to a wide range of ensemble sizes is breathtaking and key to the success of the film.

Black Swan is one of those films you need to see to understand. No amount of reviews, plot summaries, or spoilers will fully prepare you for the visceral and intimate experience of Nina Sayer's story. Some may not like what they see, but they will never forget the experience of this clever film. I say the experience is more than worth the risk of not enjoying the film.

There has never been a film quite like this released in America before and chances are there won't be another for a very long time. The safest choice would be to see this as soon as possible, for the wave of hype will turn against this film quickly and irrationally. Experience it soon before the world thinks it is as tired as an aging starlet and forces the praise into retirement.

Rating: 8/10

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