Stars: Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Scriptwriters: Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin and Mark Heyman
Composer: Clint Mansell
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Rating: R for sexual themes, language and violence
Running Length: 108 minutes
Screened at Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF) Oct. 7, 2010
The Black Swan poster looks like an advertisement for a costume ball. Actually, the make-up is for a daring variation on “Swan Lake” that is part of the storyline in this film. The lead ballerina must dance two versions of the ballet. One is the usual and termed “White Swan,” while the other is provocative and wicked, hence “Black Swan.” The story doesn’t ask for two separate ballerinas, it asks for one person to do both roles. You should be perfect to do that, and perfectionism is something explored here. Black Swan is not a horror film. It is a study in perfectionism and psyche with sexual overtones.
The film begins with Nina (Natalie Portman), a shy ballerina who practices and practices, always trying to be perfect in her art. The director of the ballet company (Vincent Cassel) usually has the lead ballerina as his current girlfriend. Beth (Winona Ryder), a lead dancer, being the latest one. You are backstage at auditions and catty comments made about appearance or dance style are all designed to make you lose your edge. It is when a daring concept of “Swan Lake” is announced that the action begins. Dancers try out for the role of “White Swan/Black Swan” and it is down to Nina. She doesn’t think she has the fire, but Cassel does. To challenge her, he brings in another lead ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis) who is all fire and pretty soon, sparks do fly all over the company from Nina to Vincent to Mila and Winona. As a lead dancer, Beth (Ryder) has her own problems and how she chooses to address them is shocking. Standing in the background as Stage Mother Incarnate, is Nina’s mother, Barbara Hershey. She treats Nina as a child and controls her daughter with icy looks or comments like “I could have been a star, but….”
Perfectionism is the key here. The over-and-over again scenario of moving muscles beyond endurance (or in the case of the rehearsal pianist being able to sit for long periods of time) is well done. Watching Nina get up in the morning and cracking her feet, bandaging her toes and preparing for yet another day on the dance floor could make your Monday morning seem tame.
You just know Nina is going to break wide open someday, but in the meantime, she has scratch wounds on her body and this is just another way to cope. Rehearsals begin and Lily and Nina dance around each other tentatively, until strange things begin to happen. Eventually, we see how troubled Nina really is. Does she hallucinate? Are these events really happening? Camera work creates a psychedelic effect through Nina’s day. Is this what she actually sees? Is the escalation of tension a path to violence?
Black Swan is a tour de force performance for Natalie Portman. Barbara Hershey as the dominant mother and Portman as the submissive daughter are lessons in acting. Hershey’s facial expressions here are withering. Portman probably has some dancing in her background and the dance scenes are finely cut so you don’t know who is doing what.
Black Swan is beautifully photographed from the dance rehearsals to the dance hall sequences, to Nina’s room and the dance performances. What do people do to attain perfectionism, and then, the question, is it really attainable? Then what? This is not a film in which you turn your head to sip a soda. You might miss something important.
Copyright 2010 Marie Asner
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