Sunday, December 19, 2010

He Said/She Said : Black Swan

You can't trust anything Black Swan shows you. That's what makes it so enthralling.

Critic Leonard Maltin, who did not like the film at all, writes, "If you make the mistake of digesting the movie on a literal basis, you're in for a sucker punch." He's right about that. The logic-obsessed need not bother trying to question it. Matlin called this movie a fever dream. but it's truly a fever nightmare. And if anything, nightmares are even less trustworthy - and harder to shake - than dreams.

Portman plays Nina Sayres, a devoted, technically excellent Met dancer who's underdeveloped emotionally. Living with her loving but domineering mother (Barbara Hershey)  Nina has never truly grown up, or lived very much. When she tells someone she's not a virgin, I'd wager she's lying. It's not merely being poetic to say Nina is afraid of her own shadow.

Her company's choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has created a new version of Swan Lake, which features two swans - the white and the black. Nina is desperate for the lead role, and has no problem nailing the White Swan part - but struggles to convince as the evil Black Swan. Complicating matters even further is the presence of a a fearless dancer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), who seems better suited to play the Black Swan. The increasingly frazzled and paranoid Nina begins to believe that Lily is after her - but Nina has other demons to worry about.

The film's director is Darren Aronofsky, and Black Swan fuses the style of two of his previous works: One is the gritty, documentary-like realism he brought to his most recent film, The Wrestler. The other is the hallucinatory style of his take on drug addiction, Requiem for a Dream. Black Swan has only one scene that deals directly with drugs, but the "can't believe your eyes" style melds amazingly well with the hand-held camerawork. Aronofsky ups the ante by using multiple images of doubles and reflections that are often divided by some kind of line, cannily revealing Nina's fractured psyche.

That psyche also shows through Portman's tour-de-force performance. The diminutive actress masterfully veers between a frightened waif and a woman scorned, and is utterly convincing as both. Nina wants to be a gentle soul but, her dark side is so potent, it terrifies her - and it shook me too. I am rooting hard for her to win the Best Actress Oscar. It's the performance of the year.

Her castmates are quite strong as well. Kunis surprises with her layered portrayal of a dancer who may not be all see seems. Cassell and Hershey are both striking as the people warring for Nina's soul, and it's nice to be reminded that Winona Ryder is still very talented in her role as a dancer at the end of her career - and her rope.

Still, it's Aronofsky and Portman who deserve the most credit for the film's success. Aronofsky puts you inside her ballet slippers - and Portman unforgettably portrays a soul at war with itself.  This movie is a psychological struggle, for both the viewer and for Nina Sayres. I came out of Black Swan with my nerves frayed and my head throbbing, even after a second and third viewing.

If you come out of this movie questioning it, and feeling troubled by it, I say good - that's as it should be. But I even  those who doubt it won't be able to forget it.

Hannah agrees with me, writing, "Portman absolutely shined in this film and I can’t wait to see how many awards she racks up as the season kicks off. She played the role with such grace and elegance and danced wonderfully. As the movie progressed she transitioned from innocent to strong-willed in a way that was engrossing to watch."

Read her full take.


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