Friday, December 3, 2010

Black Swan
Mind-Tripping The Light Fuck-tastic

All the stages are a competitive world: Natalie Portman as Nina in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan". 
Fox Searchlight

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, December 3, 2010

Competition and fear can run together as one, and Darren Aronofsky melds these superbly in his psychological thriller "Black Swan", a fascinating, visually demented horror-fantasy which opened today across the U.S. and Canada.

The world of ballet at Lincoln Center in New York City is the fictional stage.  Thrust upon it is the uptight Nina (Natalie Portman), working intensely to be the swan queen in the new production of "Swan Lake", run by a chauvinistic pig named Thomas (Vincent Cassel).  Nina is "the new kid on the street", having replaced Beth (Winona Ryder), the previous star ballerina.  Nina has Lily (Mila Kunis) breathing down her neck for the coveted spotlight.  The real test is, can anyone in the production be the black swan as well as swan queen?

"Black Swan" has inevitable comparisons to the Powell-Pressburger classic "The Red Shoes".  Indeed, both are haunting ballet-themed films about the intense pressure and desire to perform.  There's an extra dimension to "Black Swan", rooted singularly in the headspace of its lead star.  Mr. Aronofsky pulls us slowly, deeply and completely into Nina's state of mind with levels of apprehension and tension so thick that the accompanying visual effects are more credible than absurd. 

"Black Swan" is a powerful, disturbing tale about the insecurities and impossibilities of being number one when potential number ones loom close by.  The film investigates the question of what one takes on to perform at an optimum level.  And no, steroids aren't involved but competition itself is the essential drug of choice, with fear as its adrenaline.  How deep is Nina willing to go to be a black swan?  What will an ice princess do to become a beautiful, dark, seductress queen?

"Black Swan" is sexy, haunting and passionate.  Cleverly orchestrated, it plunges us headlong into the nightmarish world of ballerina survival of the fittest.  Mr. Aronofsky has often disoriented and freaked out audiences with hallucinogenic visions and optical delusions ("Requiem For A Dream").  The director uses them in "Black Swan" not as excess but enhancement.  He knows less is more, and that the power of suggestion speaks volumes.  His camera (via cinematographer Matthew Libatique) floats uneasily, readying for a tentative takeoff and flight into the world of the bizarre. 

Throughout his relatively brief filmmaking career, Mr. Aronofsky's visions have been purely gorgeous and balletic ("π", "The Fountain"), and present even in the wrestling moves in "The Wrestler".  In "Black Swan" the director uses optics so well, with off-kilter shots, divided mirrors, multiple-sized mirrors and glass, representing variations of self.  Benjamin Millepied's ballet choreography is immaculate, as is Clint Mansell's music score and Tchaikovsky's music. 

Rival: Mila Kunis as Lily in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan".  Fox Searchlight

"Black Swan" sublimely balances music, dance and psychodrama to produce a startling atmosphere of attraction and repulsion.  If black and white are polar opposites, they attract and repel, and Mr. Aronofsky's film does both to the audience, embracing the sensual and the scary.  Its characters operate within a tightly-contained cauldron of envy, jealousy and sex, with little room to breathe.

The film though, is burdened by a few stock characters, namely Lily, more a metaphoric voice of conscience than a tangible persona, and Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina's overbearing mother, living vicariously through her daughter following her own failed dance career.  These melodramatic conventions hover over "Black Swan", threatening to mar it, but thankfully writers Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin compensate by effectively capturing the politics of the ultra-competitive ballet world and depicting the voices of that world so thoroughly.

Ms. Portman handles her role with maturity and grace.  She's as elegant as the film is but in a jarring way.  Just as in Mike Nichols's "Closer", she plays an adult bursting with passion and pain.  "I'm not 12 anymore!", she shouts during a scene in the new film.  Indeed, her acting shows she's grown up.  Ms. Portman has to dig deep into the evolving physicality of her ballet-dancing Nina, and a rite of passage to womanhood, then tap into a sexuality that has been cloistered, and balance that with the mounting psychological torment she suffers.  It's a very strong performance, a convincing profile aided by Andrew Weisman's precise editing.

Mr. Cassel is just right for the role as Thomas, a sexist and womanizer.  Like Nina, Thomas eats and sleeps ballerinas and is an eager facilitator of catfights between the women competing for the dual role of swan queen and black swan.  He perhaps gets as much pleasure from the ballerina conflict as he would seeing well-endowed women grapple in a wet t-shirt contest.

To enhance creepy atmospherics and hysteria, Mr. Aronofsky often uses audience chanting as insane, ritualistic pandemonium in his films, and does so here.  The voices sound incessant and directionless.  The perfect musical equivalent of "Black Swan" would be the hard-metal Nine Inch Nails/Trent Reznor song "Closer".  One of the lyrics Mr. Reznor screams is, "I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside."

This movie wants to -- and does -- do both.

With: Ksenia Solo, Benjamin Millepied, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery.

"Black Swan" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 48 minutes. 

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