A blog about movies and filmmaking.


In drama, Horror on November 30, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Darren Aronofsky is a powerful filmmaker, and people either seem to love his movies or hate them. He’s even managed to make one movie – THE FOUNTAIN – that has started actual battles (probably mostly verbal, but still), on whether it’s a piece of crap or one of the most beautiful movies ever made. (I’m in the latter category and honestly, while I appreciate his other movies, I’m not as big a fan of PI or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.) Now there’s BLACK SWAN, his latest step in familiar territory; though it’s much more like his first two movies than what has followed since. (Before I forget to mention it, while I enjoyed THE WRESTLER, it’s really kind of forgettable in my mind.) But it’s also a magnificent piece of storytelling. 

The story is about a ballerina (hold the sighs), named Nina who is chosen to be the new lead in her company’s performance of Swan Lake; and how she copes with the stress that not only this – I dare call it a sport, almost – art, but also of taking on such a diametrically complex role. While Nina is a beacon of perfection when she executes her moves, part of her role requires her to move effortlessly; sensually and seductively. Something that Nina, initially, seems to lack. It’s not rare that we’ve seen in the movies the young girl that’s been over-sheltered by her mother; been cornered into taking on more responsibility that ought to really be allowed – but in this movie, even the happiest of moments for Nina are played with an edge of despair.

Helping, or blocking, Nina in her journey to discover the block swan in herself, is most obviously her mother (played by Barbara Hershey) – a former ballerina herself, who harbors a little resentment and also lives vacariously through her daughter. Nina’s trainer, and the maestro (I don’t know what they’re called in ballet), Thomas (brought to malicious life by Vincent Cassel) who pushes all the right – yet maybe sometimes inappropriate – buttons to get to Nina’s full potential. And finally there’s Lilly; a new dancer to the company who might just be trying to take Nina’s spot, by any means necessary.

What I can tell you is that the marketing and even synopses that I’ve read for this movie are pretty misleading. Though, kind of not…Okay, that’s going to be confusing. Suffice to say, the movie wastes no time establishing what the tone and the…um, mindset, of this movie is going to be. The movie starts with Nina (played to perfection by Natalie Portman) dancing as the White Swan, only to be attacked(?) by a menacing black swan/man like creature. (I really should learn more about this program!) It’s scary, it’s magnificent, and leads us straight into the rest of the story.

The performances here are all amazing. Even the few moments that Winona Ryder is on-screen, she shines and really makes the small role she has as real and on her way out. (And also, in one scene specifically, absolutely horrifying.) Cassel, who would seem like the main antagonist of the picture really kind of comes off the best of all the characters. He pushes and pushes, but in the end everything he does seems to come off as to better his company.

The three main characters of the movie though, that bring on the heavy pathos and take the movie out of just another sports drama, are Hershey as Nina’s mother. She’s overbearing and protective – not quite to the extent of Piper Laurie in CARRIE, but not too far from there either. The role isn’t as well explored as Ellen Burstyn’s in Requiem (which garnered her an Academy Award nomination), but it is just another shade of that similar character. Kunis, as the girl that Nina focuses on as her main adversary is also strong in the role. I wouldn’t necessarily say she’s stretching her boundaries too much in the role – seems a little similar to performances in THE BOOK OF ELI and AMERICAN PSYCHO 2 (What?!), but like many actors she plays what she does very well.

Finally, there’s the amazing performance of Natalie Portman. We all knew she was bound for greatness – heck some might say she reached it with her break-through role as Matilda in THE PROFESSIONAL. But still, it’s here – as Nina – that we get a full-spectrum; balls to the wall performance. From nearly the first moment of the movie, she looks absolutely out of her element – which considering what kind of insular world ballet is supposed to be, I don’t know how much acting is required there. But, from go, Nina is a scared little girl. She’s comforted and scolded and abused (to an extent) by her mother. She’s pushed and taunted by her dancers and leader. And then there’s her own psyche which is fighting her. Driving her to do the unimaginable, the horrific, and ultimately breaking her restraints. It’s an amazing performance, and Portman earns every accolade she’ll wind up receiving.

The movie as a whole – from the cinematography that’s never showy but still manages to make the eye question itself (and not just in the surreal and scary moments). But, in a movie about reflections and taking place in a world surrounded by mirrors, I’m interested to know how they managed to always keep the cameraman out of shot. (Trivial, I know. But it nagged at me.) Then there’s the score, which much INCEPTION, which was revealed to have a certain song playing in some part of the score at all times; here there’s a hint of Tchaikovsky’s music in everything that plays on-screen. Whether it’s during the ballet scenes, in a dance club or even during the mental breakdown sequences. So kudos to cinematographer and musician, for this movie – and regular Aronofsky collaborators – Matthew Libatique and Clint Mansell, respectively.

Which, finally brings me all the way back to Darren Aronofsky. I don’t know that I could call this his masterpiece – I still might hold THE FOUNTAIN in that regard, but we’ll wait and see – but it’s certainly up there. BLACK SWAN seems like a culmination of most of what’s come before in his career, to land us in this place. I honestly don’t have much criticism for the movie, because it’s so raw; so disturbing; and so affecting. It leaves you emotionally exhausted. It makes your mind reel with what was real and what was imagined. But it doesn’t leave you numb, or empty – like I would argue Requiem For A Dream does. So kudos to Aronofsky, and also to the screenwriters – Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin – who can take all the praise I heaped above and apply it to themselves, because without their story none of this would have existed.

Do yourselves a favor and go see this movie.


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