17 December 2010

Black Swan

Natalie Portman is shown in a scene from "Black Swan."
What a devious trick Darren Aronofsky pulls off with "Black Swan."

The film takes place in the world of a professional New York City ballet company, so you might expect something sophisticated, classy, intellectual. It begins by presenting the action in a cinema verite style, following dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) with a handheld camera, showing us the nitty gritty of ballet—the bitter backstage rivalries, the hours of arduous practice, the bruised, bloody toes.

That's not to say "Black Swan" is not sophisticated, classy and intellectual, and does not show us the world of ballet from the inside out—it is and it does. The trick occurs after the first act, when the movie shifts from the documentary feel of Aronofsky's last feature, "The Wrestler" (2008), to a twisted psychological drama bordering on horror, its story mirroring that of "Swan Lake," the venerable ballet at the heart of the action.

After putting aging star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) out to pasture, ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) casts Nina in the lead role of his new version of "Swan Lake." Though Nina strives to be perfect, she isn't perfect for the role. Her flawless technique and fearful innocence make her an ideal fit for the virtuous White Swan, but her evil twin, the Black Swan, requires someone sensual, seductive—someone more like Lily (Mila Kunis, a revelation in a dramatic role), newly arrived from San Francisco.

Thomas praises Nina for her discipline but tells her that, to become the Black Swan, she must lose herself in the role. Nina, in her unending quest for perfection, takes "losing herself" to a whole new level.

Portman is simply phenomenal, giving a fearless performance requiring months of rigorous training beforehand as Nina grows from a young woman living like a child under the thumb of her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals and dominated by the color pink into something … else. Appearing in every scene, she and Aronofsky take us inside Nina's head, casting doubt on everything we see, especially Lily, who alternately appears as a rival, friend, lover and adversary. The movie all but cries out for a second viewing to determine exactly what is real and what is the product of Nina's fractured mind, and that still might not be enough.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique brings us onstage with the dancers, dropping us in the middle of the action. Clint Mansell's musical score incorporates the indelible themes from "Swan Lake" (recognizable even to someone who knows nothing of ballet, aka me), further exaggerating the surreal, melodramatic quality of the world in which "Black Swan" exists.

The intensity builds as opening night draws near, Nina's grip on reality becoming more tenuous by the day, and reaches a fever pitch during the first performance of "Swan Lake," the movie's themes crystallizing in a beautiful, gut-wrenching, head-spinning climax.

"Black Swan" is the kind of film that stays with you, a moving experience on multiple levels.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. 108 minutes.)

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