Monday 24 January 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

A study of a character in pure turmoil, Black Swan invites us to watch as the pressure of being perfect causes a crack in the normally straightforward ability to distinguish what is real from what is imagined. And in the case of Nina, her imagination is soaked with increasing amounts of blood, lust and the ability to cause damage to herself and others.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a technically proficient ballerina, but lacking in passion. The ballet company's artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) nevertheless selects her to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan in the upcoming production of Swan Lake. Nina has no trouble with the White Swan role; but Thomas needs her to dramatically improve her interpretation of the passionate, seductive Black Swan.

Nina soon finds herself struggling to manage a host of problems: Thomas seems to be making unwanted advances. Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer with the company, appears to deliver passion effortlessly and is eager to step into Nina's role should she falter. Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging, retiring star of the company, believes that Nina plotted to dethrone her. And Nina's mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) is supportive to the point of suffocation, eager to ensure that the daughter achieves the fame that eluded the mother.

As Nina struggles to step into the role of the Black Swan, reality and fantasy meld together, and a series of harrowing - and sometimes exhilarating - events, some real and some in her mind, hurtle her towards opening night.

Director Darren Aronofsky follows up The Wrestler with another bleak look into a profession that requires the abuse of the human body to achieve success, but whereas in The Wrestler he was satisfied portraying the physical cost of success, Aronofsky has no hesitation in Black Swan to push deep into the mental damage caused by intense, cut-throat competition.

Black Swan sets out to be thought provoking and to a certain extent traumatizing. Into the normally staid world of ballet the movie throws a lot of blood, mutilation, brazen jealousy, and insanity. Taken literally, Black Swan is a journey into the mind of a perfectionist cracking under the enormous pressure of expectation. Nina is losing her mind trying to meet the expectations of Thomas, trying to make amends for the interrupted career of her mother Erica, trying to avoid the cattiness of the other dancers, and trying to satisfy her own desire for perfection while struggling to learn that dancing can be as much about passion as about technique.

But more interesting are two more metaphorical interpretations: Black Swan is a representation of the harrowing changes needed to push to the limit and break through psychological barriers to attain previously impossible objectives. To achieve her goal Nina has to abandon her old self and re-invent a new, more powerful Nina that she herself can believe in, and this process requires lot of pain and the breaking of old, entrenched habits. The more paranormal events that she encounters are symbolic of this transformation, and include physical changes, new sexual awakenings, and breaking free of her mother's dominance. She can only achieve a triumph as the Black Swan by bidding an agonizing farewell to the constraints of her old life.

Also thought-provoking are the greater metaphorical questions that Black Swan asks: are the sacrifices that ballerinas are expected to make to reach the pinnacle of their art rational? The film is clearly saying no: although many want to reach the peak, the price involves no small amount of madness. The same can be said of many athletic professions that involve inhumane extremes of physical exertion.

Wading through the increasingly shocking psychological trauma, Natalie Portman delivers a wonderful performance, conveying with her eyes the tremendous building levels of anguish beneath Nina's facade of ballerina grace. The supporting cast is fairly one-dimensional, but livened up by the welcome appearance of Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. While Vincent Cassel never breaks out of the stereotypical manipulative company director role, Mila Kunis brings a passionate vibrancy to Lily that bodes well for more starring future roles. Both Portman and Kunis underwent extensive ballet training in preparation for their roles, and they are generally convincing.

In an era of mostly sugar-coated movies desperately chasing tidy resolutions and happy endings, Black Swan is challenging, disturbing and most memorable.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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