by Mel Valentin
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky has consistently returned to obsessive, damaged, doomed characters, their search for ecstatic perfection (e.g., universe-explaining mathematical formulas in "Pi," the perfect “high” in "Requiem for a Dream," romantic love in "The Fountain," sports-related glory in "The Wrestler") and their self-destruction and psychological disintegration. The same description could apply to Aronofsky’s latest film (a personal project that took Aronofsky a decade to make), "Black Swan,"a bold, brilliant psychological thriller and backstage melodrama set inside claustrophobic world of a ballet company that premiered at the Venice Film Festival two months ago to approving audiences and critics (it also played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals).Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballet dancer in a fictional New York City ballet company, hopes to become the soloist in a production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's classic ballet, Swan Lake. Nina sees the upcoming performance of Swan Lake as the last, best chance for her stagnant career as a ballet dancer. Her authoritarian, controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a one-time ballerina, does as well. Nina mirrors herself (mirrors appear constantly throughout Black Swan, reflecting Nina’s fragile psyche and its destabilizing permutations) on Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), the ballet company’s resident star facing the end of her career. With the manipulative, seductive George Balanchine-like Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as the ballet company’s director, Nina undergoes intensive training, especially after Leroy selects Nina as his new Swan Lake soloist.
"Psychological horror has a new name..."
Swan Lake, however, calls for the soloist to play divergent, contradictory roles: the White Swan, contained, restrained, and controlled, which Nina seemingly embodies; and the Black Swan: unrestrained, free-spirited, sensual, traits missing from Nina’s repressed personality. She has to get in touch with her dark side (no, not Darth Vader style). Leroy brings in a new ballet dancer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), from San Francisco. Lilly lacks Nina’s technical proficiency, but dances with the emotion Nina can’t express on stage. Lily makes overtures to Nina, but their competiveness, jealousy, and suspicions (mostly Nina’s) make a real relationship, platonic or otherwise, unlikely, if not impossible.
Adapted by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz from The Understudy, an unproduced screenplay written by Aronofsky almost ten years ago, Black Swan draws inspiration from Dostoyevsky's novella, The Double (Lilly as Nina’s doppelganger), Powell-Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (setting, conflicts), All About Eve (backstage melodrama), Polanski’s Repulsion (subjective POV, psychological disintegration, hallucinations), and Cronenbergian body-horror (e.g., Rabid, Shivers, The Brood) but bears those inspirations and influences lightly. Thematically, Black Swan bears a close relationship to The Red Shoes and its old-school Romantic ideas of art and artists (e.g., suffering, sacrificing, even dying for Art with a capital “A”). Black Swan culminates in the production of Swan Lake, with Nina’s fragile psyche fracturing under the strain of her obsessive perfectionism.
A performance-based film like Black Swan unsurprisingly depends on the talents of its actors, specifically Portman and Kunis, to “sell” the audience on the authenticity and “realness” of the story on an emotional level. While asked to do less dramatically, the supporting cast, specifically Cassel, Hershey, and Ryder in a small, but pivotal role as MacIntyre, an aging ballerina forced into retirement (one of several, life-negating paths open to Nina), but also the members of the ballet company, add the necessary verisimilitude to a film initially grounded in an objective world, but one that devolves into the hallucinatory, nightmarish projections of a subjective one as Nina’s anxieties, fears, and desires manifest themselves visually and aurally.
In interviews, Aronofsky has talked about Black Swan as a companion piece to year’s Oscar-nominated film, The Wrestler. Both films focus on a performance-based art-form, both depend on self-sacrifice, both take significant, sometimes overwhelming physical, emotional, and mental tolls on the performers, providing their respective central characters with a driving obsession, to perform, to perform perfectly, to win and, however temporarily, the adoration of their audiences, and both end in a moment of transcendence. The Wrestler remains firmly rooted in its cinema vérité world, while Black Swan doesn’t, burrowing deeply into Nina’s troubled psyche.To reinforce the thematic and narrative connections between "Black Swan" and "The Wrestler," Aronofsky again employs a stripped-down, cinéma vérité-inspired visual style, stalking Nina with a handheld camera or hovering inches behind her shoulder, practically implicating moviegoers in her psychological breakdown. Nina’s great unraveling, her desire to satisfy her mentor’s exacting expectations, her mother’s frustrated dreams, and, ultimately Nina herself, lead, inevitably, inexorably toward a tragic denouement, the only one "Black Swan" could have.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21278&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/03/10 19:57:14