21 January 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan



A

Black Swan
2010, 108mins, 15
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer (s): Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Cast includes: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey
UK Release Date: 21st January 2011

Following up his 2008 winner “The Wrestler” was never going to be easy, but with the formidable “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky may even have bettered it. A psychological thriller set against a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, Aronofsky’s film is a compellingly tragic affair; fronted by a sublime leading turn from the erratic Natalie Portman. A warped and stunningly surreal examination of a fractured mind, “Black Swan” is a powerful triumph and one that seduces the audience using pure sensory overload. There’s nothing quite like it.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a shy but talented ballerina, emotionally repressed via an infantilized relationship with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina is determined to nab the role of Swan Queen in an upcoming re-imagining of “Swan Lake”, but company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) isn’t convinced by her abilities. Nina’s grace and technical skill render her an ideal choice for the chaste White Swan, but her lack of passion and vigor is detrimental when it comes to portraying the edgier Black Swan. Seeing as the part requires the dancer to do both, Leroy is fairly confident Nina won’t be able to handle it. More suitable in the impresario’s eyes is Lilly (Mila Kunis), a wild and equally proficient newcomer, an athlete with the range to convey both sides of the Swan Queen adequately. However after Nina actively begs for the part, Leroy gifts it to her in the hope that the reserved dancer might grow into it. All starts promisingly, but soon Nina’s sanity begins to wilt under the pressure. Not helping matters is her paranoid fixation with a potentially jealous Lilly, and a hostile encounter with one of Leroy’s previous protégés (Winona Ryder). Eventually madness overwhelms everything, turning Nina from a quiet loner into a confused but incredibly vocal lunatic.

Portman is stupendous in “Black Swan”, perfectly surveying a fragile young woman with severe mental problems. It’s a performance that balances both sides of Nina’s personality very organically; the actress never hits a moment of imbalance or excess during her flights of insanity. Despite her often frosty and frigid demeanor, viewers do come to care about Nina, helplessly watching as she’s thrown into a stunning whirlwind of schizophrenic hysteria. It’s proof that when under the supervision of a strong filmmaker Portman can be truly majestic. The supporting thespians aren’t in the limelight as much, but play their parts just as impressively. Vincent Cassel is saddled with the dullest character, but still makes it work on the back of his raw magnetism and charm. Kunis (usually found in dippy comedies) tackles Lilly with a surprising dollop of subtly, carefully treading the line between misunderstood comrade and utterly conniving bitch. Nina’s dubious perception of Lilly is central to her continuous brain strain, Kunis always keeping her character’s intentions appreciatively ambiguous as a result. Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder also deliver the goods, especially Ryder as an embittered and angered has-been. She controls every frame of the picture she’s in, her brash rage contrasting notably with Portman’s subdued anxiety.

The narrative is all over the place, but that’s obviously the point. “Black Swan” represents the world as seen by Nina, and as she grows crazier her point of view becomes increasingly less reliable. Aronofsky captures this through a distorted yet vividly designed aesthetic, showcasing bizarre camera angles and applying a highly kinetic polish to the picture. The ballet sequences are wildly engaging, Aronofsky always keeping the camera moving in order to accurately depict the speed and elegance such an art form possesses. Of course there are plenty of visual tics that help establish the impending mental anguish, creepy use of mirrors and some rather gruesome self mutilation ramming the point home obviously, but with an excitable urgency and aura of dread.

The project displays human sexuality rather vivaciously, but not in an exploitative or needlessly tawdry fashion. One of Nina’s fundamental character traits is her sexual reluctance, something counterpointed by the animalistic lust displayed by Leroy and Lilly. “Black Swan” doesn’t feature any overt nudity, but it does boast a graphic instance of masturbation and a lesbian exchange between Portman and Kunis. Had the final product not been so momentously poignant then these individual moments might threaten to overpower the film as a whole, but thankfully “Black Swan” uses them to further its characters and help paint the central descent into madness even more viscerally.

The movie culminates alongside a lively interpretation of “Swan Lake”, Aronofsky easily conveying the bombast and scope of New York ballet, whilst also injecting in numerous deranged quirks, most notably a dreamlike burst of body horror. The musical score courtesy of Clint Mansell is also deserving of praise, the composer taking all of the film’s themes and working them into a pleasurable and deliberately melodramatic funk. Adding to the aural brilliance is some of the best sound design I’ve heard in a movie for years, further enhancing the picture’s frantic tone. I adored “Black Swan”, and whilst I appreciate that it won’t be for everyone, it is a wholly unforgettable cinematic endeavor. It’s a blisteringly incongruous tour de force from start to finish.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

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