- Movie Rating -

Black Swan (2010)

| December 17, 2010 | 0 Comments

Darren Aronofsky is a pure film artist, one of the best of his generation. His specialty comes with exploring characters that are coming apart under the stress of paranoia, yet he never makes his films boring or depressing. It is exciting to watch his characters thrash about, trying to get a handle on their situation. With his 1998 debut Pi, he examined a paranoid mathematician who was trying to unlock the coded patterns of the universe. In 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, he followed Ellen Burstyn (in a brilliant performance) into a diet pill addiction that led to a rubber room. Then with The Wrestler two years ago, he followed the fall and disgrace of a former professional wrestler played by Mickey Rourke whose life goes from bad to worse.

Those were great films but I think he has finally found the best arena for his kind of melodrama: ballet. Black Swan is a gorgeous looking but sometimes horrifying story (as great ballets sometimes are) about a woman so obsessed with perfection that she ends up losing her marbles. Aronofsky uses Swan Lake as a template to tell a story that is both grounded in reality and in flights of terrifying fancy.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a fragile spirit who was pushed into the world of ballet by her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), and now occupies a place in the New York Ballet Company. Under the tutelage of the demanding company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), Nina is poised for the lead in the new production of Swan Lake, which has been recast after Thomas ousted the former lead Beth McEntyre (Winona Ryder). Pushed between Thomas, her mother, and her obsession with perfecting her dancing (set off when Thomas tells her that she has the chops to play the white swan but not the black one), Nina’s mind is coming apart. Added to that stress is the presence of a new member to the company, a free-spirit named Lily (Mila Kunis) who Nina fears will take her place.

This sounds like the standard, ordinary backstage drama – All About Eve in a tutu – but the movie is focused squarely at Nina’s point of view and makes her journey into a dark and seductive thriller. Nina sees things that aren’t there, like injures to her fingers and back (if you know the basic structure of Swan Lake, you quickly deduce why). She becomes paranoid about losing her part. She thinks Lily is out to sabotage her. She sees herself doing things in the mirror that she is not doing in reality.

There is a stark and frightening melodrama at work here but also a fascinating mystery. The more you understand the basic plot of Swan Lake, the quicker you will understand what is happening to Nina. Yet, even if you don’t, the underlying mystery unfolds beautifully leading to one of the most exhilarating final acts that I have seen in a movie in years. Finally, like a breath of fresh air, it is nice to see a movie whose ending isn’t telegraphed from the beginning.

Natalie Portman is a revelation here. I’ve been watching her for years in a variety of roles both good and bad but something came out of her in this movie that I didn’t expect. I know that she is a wonderful actor but I wasn’t aware that she was such a good re-actor. Most actors stand by, waiting for the moment but Portman knows how to play to a situation. Here she is asked to play a character who is in a constant state of stress and confusion. She wears the pain right at the center of her face and around her eyes. If her performance seems somewhat overwrought, then consider that ballet itself thrives on that very thing.

That’s what makes the movie work and why the third act is such a kicker. We’ve followed this young woman on a strange journey and, in the end, we are taken down to her inevitable fate. But the finale isn’t the point, it is the strange journey getting there. The film is lurid and grotesque but it finds a balance of tone that keeps us watching. This is Aronofsky’s best film and, to my taste, the best film of 2010.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2010) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Thriller