BLACK SWAN - THE PIT OF HORROR REVIEW -- [Posted 20 December 2010]
A study of self-destructive patterns in the artist's quest for perfection on the stage, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a superbly crafted psychological thriller featuring an outstanding cast. Themes of cyclical dysfunction, as well as obsession and jealousy, are the focus here, plus the jagged results of when they are carried to extreme conclusion.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a brilliantly talented but emotionally unstable ballet dancer. Her clinging, overbearing mother Erica (an unrecognizable Barbara Hershey) sacrificed her own ballet career years ago to raise Nina, hence her inability to treat her adult daughter as any more than a teenager. Nina belongs to the same prestigious New York City dance company as had her mother, and she is alarmed as a cherished colleague (Winona Ryder) is summarily dismissed from the company because of her advanced age.
Acclaimed French actor Vincent Cassel turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as director Thomas Leroy, who has just announced the company's upcoming production will be Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. "Done to death, I know," he laconically intones, "but not like this." Leroy's innovation to the piece is to cast a single dancer to play both the protagonist White Swan character and her nemesis, the Black Swan. Nina's discipline and perfectionism make her the perfect candidate for the White Swan role, while those same attributes are a detriment to playing the other role. Newly arrived West Coast-based dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) inhabits the loose, uber-sensual stylings Leroy is looking for in the Black Swan. Although Nina is ultimately cast in both roles, Lily's casting as her understudy strikes a fiercely competitive relationship between the two dancers. Or is the competition all in Nina's mind?
Nina and Lily enter into a strange friendship which threatens to compromise Nina's concentration on her work. Lily pushes cigarettes and designer drugs onto the wallflower Nina. Is she attempting to sabotage Nina so she can claim the part for her own, or is Lily simply a "good time Charlie" who knows how to handle her highs and assumes Nina can as well? At times one begins to wonder if Lily is but a figment of Nina's imagination, a dark-sided doppelgaenger. If that sounds like some kind of spoiler, relax; it's not. This film is far too inventive for such a "been there, done that" twist.
Under Erica's prying eye, Nina is also beginning to experience some bizarre physiological conditions, not the least one of which is a mysterious rash which keeps appearing on her shoulder. Nina also pulls off her ballet slippers to find toes that are inexplicably scarred, and in one instance, webbed. Kind of like a swan, no? So it's no longer a question of whether all of this is merely in her head, it's a question of just what is in her head and what just might be real.
The performances in Black Swan are exceptional. The current buzz is that Portman is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod, and they ain't just whistlin' Dixie. She is in stellar form here in a complex role for which she spent ten months preparing vis-a-vis learning ballet. Both Hershey and Ryder are commanding in roles that have in common the regret that comes with age and the knowledge which, had they had it earlier in life, would have changed their situations for the better. But Cassel is another who might want to stay near his phone the day Oscar nods are announced. As Leroy, he is at once predatory, despicable, frustrated and brilliant. Although Cassel is no stranger to American cinema, this is a breakout performance very reminiscent of Christoph Waltz in last year's Inglorious Basterds.
It's also no accident that the characters and themes in Black Swan mirror those of the source material Swan Lake. Synopsizing the Tchaikovsky work here for review purposes would be the height of indulgence, but the underlying theme of freedom through death is mirrored here in more than one instance, and not in the way you might expect. Clint Mansell's masterful score even adapts sections of Swan Lake to underscore key scenes. Indeed, violence of the mind can be just as visceral as violence of the flesh.
Darren Aronofsky's resume, which includes Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Wrestler, is not necessarily vast, but certainly impressive. Black Swan is yet another proud feather in his cap, and a captivating watch that continually demonstrates, to paraphrase the old stage adage: There are no small roles. Only small dancers.
'BLACK SWAN' A Film by Darren Aronofsky
Starring NATALIE PORTMAN - MILA KUNIS - VINCENT CASSEL - WINONA RYDER - BARBARA HERSHEY - BENJAMIN MILLEPIED - KSENIA SOLO
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
[DISCUSS ON OUR FORUMS] [Review By Petch Lucas]
STUDIO: FOX SEARCHLIGHT
RUN TIME 108 minutes (US)
CERT: USA, R