Review: Black Swan

Black Swan | Darren Aronofsky, 2010

I just want to be perfect.

I graduated high school as a nearly straight-A student; I only got 2 B’s early on. When I started college, I wanted to keep that streak going. The first semester I started out fine, but as I went on, and classes started getting hard, I just couldn’t keep up anymore. One time, I even had a breakdown as I was leaving a class. Since that day, I said “fuck it” and now I’m aiming for the lowest passing grade, and anything above that is just gravy. So, you see, I guess that we all have stories like this, therefore we can all connect to Nina Sayer’s plight in Darren Aronofsky’s latest opus, although I hope no one has every gone so deep as she did.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), is a dancer in the cutthroat world of New York City Ballet. She has been at it for a while, but she never had a chance to shine. When the company’s lead dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), “announces” her retirement, a new lead will be needed, and she gets the chance to audition for Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel), the company’s brilliant, but overtly demanding director. Also auditioning for the role is Lily (Mila Kunis), new arrival from San Francisco. Eventually, Nina gets the role of the Swan Queen in the new production of Swan Lake, but she has to work hard at getting the black swan right, so that puts a ton of pressure on her. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t help either. And so, as the days go by and the pressure mounts up, she starts seeing things, and thinking that Lilly is out to get her, and this leads the most amazing final 20 minutes you’ll see in a live-action movie this year.

If anything, Black Swan is proof that when you have talent, you don’t need a big budget to tell amazing stories. Aronofsky could have gone with a glossy look for this and market it toward the mainstream adult crowd by making it a straight horror movie, but instead he chose to shoot it in the same way that he did The Wrestler. Thanks to the hand-held camera, the grittiness of the Super 16 film stock and Matthew Libatique’s beautiful compositions., we get a character-driven, psychological thriller, the likes of which we have not seen in a while.

Also adding to the tension created by the camera, is the carefully thought out production design. They were going for a specific look where black and white were the main colors to further push the struggle between Nina’s inner struggle, and I must say that it worked. The sound design is creepy and very creative as well. The visual effects, while minimal aid the movie very well. Shame they didn’t make AMPAS’ visual effects shortlist (you know which movie did? Percy Jackson). And for last I must mention Clint Mansell’s great score. He combines Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake with his own original compositions, and rearranges it to create a tense version of the ballet that plays throughout the movie, only when needed the most.

The performers are also quite up to the task that Aronofsky set upon them. Everything you’ve heard about Natalie Portman’s performance is true. While she did have to learn ballet for the role, almost nothing else about the role calls for a showy performance. What Nina is going through is an inner struggle, and it rarely get out there. Sure, there are some shouting matches, but with the exception of, like I said, the dancing, there is no “Oscar Clip” in this.  Portman does this part of the performance with ease. You don’t see someone acting, but rather a person who has pretty much been through hell her entire life in search of perfection but has never achieved it. She now joins Ellen Burstyn, Hugh Jackman, and Mickey Rourke as an actor who has given a career–topping performance in an Aronofsky film, and that is some good company.

Every one else is also very good. Vincent Cassel is great as the sleazy director. It was just perfect casting. Barbary Hersey is fantastic as the stage mother from hell who is living her dreams through her daughter, and may actually be jealous of her. Mila Kunis is not given much to do, but she does have to play everything that Nina is not. She’s good, but Hersey should be the one that’s getting all the awards attention.

Black Swan is a masterful example of storytelling through film. It may not be the greatest thing ever as they hype would have you believe, but it is still one of the best movies of the year that features a star-making performance from Natalie Portman. I can’t wait to watch it a few more times to remind me to work hard, but not to strive for perfection.

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