Friday, January 14, 2011

Black Swan / **** (R)

Nina Sayers: Natalie Portman
Lily: Mila Kunis
Thomas Leroy: Vincent Cassel
Erica Sayers: Barbara Hershey
Beth Macintyre: Winona Ryder

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Mark Heyman and Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin. Running time: 108 min. Rated R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use).

A friend of mine described Darren Aronofsky’s latest multi-award nominated movie “Black Swan” as “his masterpiece.” The only problem I have with that statement is that his 2000 multi-award nominated movie, “Requiem for a Dream”, was his masterpiece. Then in 2008, “The Wrestler” was his next multi-award nominated masterpiece. Even his debut film “π” was a masterpiece of sorts, considering that he was actually able to turn a movie about religion and math into a thriller. Even his less appreciated “The Fountain” was a cerebral masterpiece that meshed religion, romance and science into a slow, but visually stunning conundrum. I suppose the Aronofksy masterpiece that “Black Swan” most closely resembles is “The Wrestler”. But, while “The Wrestler” was a backstage look into an athlete/performer’s reality, “Black Swan” depicts a performer/athlete’s nightmare.

We’re introduced to Nina Sayers, a professional ballet dancer who dreams of playing the lead in “Swan Lake”. Portrayed as a fragile creature by Natalie Portman (“Closer”), Nina seems to live a fairly sheltered life that consists of little else but dancing. Her mom (Barbara Hershey, “An Unmarried Woman”) is a loving but overprotective and controlling parent, quick to call Nina’s cell phone should she be a little late home from rehearsal. A former dancer who abandoned the discipline when she became pregnant with her daughter, Nina’s mom warns her off any distractions from her career, yet seems unwilling to lose her daughter to it. A celebration with a cake turns sensitive quickly when Nina worries that she shouldn’t eat it. 

When her New York based ballet company announces that they will be performing “Swan Lake” to open their new season and that their long-time headliner will be retiring and will be replaced by a younger dancer, Nina sees her chance to become a star. Nina seems so isolated and timid that, although she’s a wonderful dancer, the creative director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, “Eastern Promises”) doesn’t feel she has the emotional experience to perform the dual role of The Swan Princess and The Black Swan, the princess’s evil twin.

Like “The Wrestler”, the early scenes in “Black Swan” show the harsh details of the life chosen by these artists. Aronofsky shows with great detail the preparations and sacrifices dancers make for their craft. We watch as a new toe slipper is torn apart and sewn back together to help the ballet artist better perform her dance steps without regard to the physical damage these alterations will do to her feet. We see Nina crudely score the bottoms of her shoes with a knife. We see a session with a physical therapist working on Nina’s feet that induces a cringe. All these scenes very much reminded me of the backstage scenes of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler and all the physical hardship he forced himself to endure despite the fact that the wrestling game was somewhat of an act.

However, “Black Swan” isn’t really about the realities of being a professional dancer, even though those details do enhance the experience. “Black Swan” is about Nina’s personal fantasies and delusions as she spirals down into the darkest corners of an artist’s psychological dilemma of perfecting a craft while playing a role. The early scenes between Nina and Thomas define the conflict that will eventually consume her. Thomas flatly denies the role to Nina, and when she doesn’t fight for it he starts to seduce her. But, are his advances genuine, or just a device he uses to get Nina to become the powerful performer he knows is inside of her? The filmmakers do a great job of keeping this a gray area, where we wonder just how far is too far to go for a role. Both Cassel and Portman provide amazing performances to pose this question while leaving the audience to ponder the answer.

What Thomas perhaps does not suspect is the notion that Nina has already gone too far off the deep end. The degradation of his former prodigy, Beth (Winona Ryder, “Star Trek”), would suggest that he is aware of the toll his methods take on his subjects. But, even before Thomas considers Nina for the part, she already seems to be a couple screws short. She has vivid waking hallucinations that grow more pronounced once a new dancer, Lily, joins the group and appears to be another contender for the part of the Swan Princess. Is Nina’s paranoia out of control, or is the apparently kind Lily just a more devious demon than Nina has ever encountered before? Again a nuanced performance by Mila Kunis (“The Book of Eli”) as Lily allows for only the question to be formed in our minds, while the answer remains elusive.

Only slowly does it occur to the viewer—if at all—that “Black Swan” is not merely a plot that involves a production of “Swan Lake”, but is in fact a modernized adaptation of the classic ballet. Nina, like the Swan Princess, is replaced in her reality by an evil twin. She must fight to retain her purity, but finds the evil twin has trapped her in a situation where death may be her only salvation. It is this final level of metaphor that catapults this movie from great filmmaking to the masterpiece status my friend spoke of.  “Black Swan” is filmmaking at its artistic zenith. It combines all levels of film—entertainment, visual artistry, performance, sound, editing, commentary, and metaphor—and handles them all at their highest level of achievement, delivering one of the best films of the year.

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