Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black Swan

If being able to generate whiteknuckle tension from thin air, make the screen pulsate with life with little blatant action, and direct actor after actor to career-best performances weren't enough to assure Darren Aronofsky's status as one of our greatest living filmmakers, it’s his proven talent at making topics that generally bore me to tears absolutely fucking fascinating that clinches it. First he made a crackling, insane thriller out of theoretical math in Pi, then he made the manliest of men weep with professional wrestling in The Wrestler, and now, in Black Swan, he crafts ballet into a brilliantly demented journey into psychosexual horror anchored by the best screen performance of 2010. Whatever the subject, when Aronofsky touches it, cinematic gold floweth forth.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, who has just been promoted to the lead role in her New York ballet company's production of Swan Lake and lives and breathes her art to a horrifying degree. Her drive for perfection in dance at the expense of all else has not only left her a socially-stunted emotional child still pampered by her overbearing stage mom (Barbara Hershey) well into her late 20s, but drained the life from her dance itself. Her moves are precise, exacting, technically perfect, cold, soulless. This makes her ideal for the pure and innocent White Swan she is to begin Swan Lake as, but she finds herself struggling to capture the verve and raw, erotic energy required from the devilish Black Swan she's supposed to transform into over the course of the performance. Adding to the pressure is the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a less technically proficient but far more passionate new dancer in the company, who may or may not be angling for Nina's spot.

But the film's key relationship is between neither Nina and Lily nor Nina and her mother, but Nina and Thomas, the director of the ballet company, brought to life with compelling predatory sleaze by French actor Vincent Cassel. To call his means inappropriate for the workplace would be putting it mildly — in order to bring out the inner Black Swan he sees in Nina, his tutoring revolves far more around sex than choreography and his homework assignments for Nina involve not dance steps but going home and touching herself. These methods reveal the cracks in Nina's shell, but as the already psychologically unstable ballerina embraces the Black Swan, her tenuous grip on reality starts to fade, and the film takes us on an equally dazzling and terrifying journey into delusion, paranoia, and insanity.

Unlike ballet itself, Black Swan is not the highest of art, something I say not as a criticism but with great admiration. Don't let anyone dress the film up with euphemisms about it being a "psychological thriller" — this is a horror film, drawn in intentionally broad and melodramatic strokes, packed with lurid sexuality and gruesome body horror as Nina's toenails crack and bleed and her skin rots off, driven by composer Clint Mansell's eerie, aggressive, almost omnipresent score. That the horror genre has largely allowed itself to be redefined by teenage slasher flicks and the seemingly endless Final Destination franchise is as much of a shame as if comedy allowed itself to be all grouped in with Adam Sandler movies or drama entirely with daytime soap operas. Tackled with the creativity and bold artistry of Black Swan, horror can be given life anew, at least if critics aren't afraid to label it such when they see it.

While Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and particularly Barbara Hershey all deserve commendation for their performances, this is unmistakably Natalie Portman's film; she's the focus of every single scene and close enough to every frame, and it's easily the best performance of her career and one of the best of the last several years of film, period. Even putting aside the months of training Portman put in to depict a convincing ballerina and become alarmingly skinny and seemingly bulimic, she creates a character wound impossibly tight and constantly dancing on the edge of psychotic breakdown. It's a performance that evokes sympathy as the film opens and terror as the Black Swan begins to emerge. Portman and Aronofsky deserve equal credit for making nearly every second of the film's final act feel like something dreadful might happen at any moment. For her not to win Best Actress in on Oscar night would reveal the entire event as a farce.

Darren Aronofsky has stated on record that he sees Black Swan as a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, both being character studies of people who sacrifice all for their performance art, but I see it much more as the spiritual sequel to his 1998 debut film Pi. The Wrestler was a straight-faced drama set in the real world, absent dread, hallucination, or that chilling, persistent score. Pi and Black Swan are both horrific journeys of obsession, showing paranoia and insanity emerge as we follow their protagonists down a dark psychological well in search of perfection of their craft, be that craft math or ballet. Watching them back-to-back it's clear that Hollywood hasn't drained Aronofsky of one ounce of his intensity or mad genius, and Black Swan is one of the best films of 2010.

4 Stars out of 5

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