REVIEW: “Black Swan” (****)

Posted by · 6:18 am · September 1st, 2010

Venice Film Festival

It’s the juvenilization of the term “fairy tale” that has led many people to associate them inextricably with happy endings. At their most literary, fairy tales can be moral and often very unhappy narratives of yearning, obsession and eventual redemption, even if it comes with rather a large sacrifice attached; Hans Christian Andersen specialized in compromised happy endings, notably in “The Little Mermaid” and “The Red Shoes,” that would have made Walt Disney wince.

If you squint slightly at “Black Swan,” the boldly deranged and beautifully despairing new film from Darren Aronofsky, you can see that it is, when push comes to plié, a contemporary fairy tale of sorts: the story of a little girl, in the fierce grip of controlling adults, who wants nothing more than to dance, and learns that she must exchange part of herself for the opportunity.

That much I can say without breaking the spell for those who have not seen it. For while “Black Swan” may reveal itself as a fairy tale, that’s only after it has successfully masqueraded as a taut, witty and wickedly kinky thriller that pulls off the tricky double-bluff of following precisely the narrative course one has mapped out for it, yet emerging as all the more surprising for that adherence.

The excited hum of online chatter around the film’s terrifically nutso trailer a few weeks back had people projecting all manner of elaborate, “Fight Club”-style identity gymnastics, yet it’s no spoiler to say that Aronofsky has assembled a considerably more streamlined character study than one might have expected: Natalie Portman’s  Nina, a physically and emotionally fragile young dancer in Vincent Cassel’s progressive New York ballet company, is the nexus of all the film’s nervy uncertainties.

It was reported recently that “Black Swan” was initially conceived in tandem with Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” and as far-fetched as that union seemed on paper, the film is, from first movement to last, very much the brittle younger sister to that brawny trailer-park tragedy. Both are studies of performers destructively addicted to their art, and the new film maintains the director’s fascination with the broken bodies of such individuals: Matthew Libatique’s camera cruelly scrutinizes the twisted, blistered shells of dancers’ feet as much as the earlier film did the wrecked ghost of Mickey Rourke’s body, while Aronofsky hones in on the petty rivalries and part-time camaraderie of the girls in the company as astutely as he observed Randy the Ram’s meathead backstage family on the pro wrestling circuit.

The difference is that “Black Swan” extends that fascination to the realm of the mind: Nina’s malnourishment and mangled toes are small potatoes compared to the damage she inflicts on herself internally — her punishing workaholism fiercely egged on by Barbara Hershey’s nightmare stage mom, in parental court on charges of both infantilization and vicarious living. When a lifetime of this is finally rewarded with her dream role of The Swan Queen in the company’s revisionist staging of “Swan Lake,” Nina’s gruelling self-punishment tilts over into delusional paranoia, not assisted by the friendly advances of Mila Kunis’s rival dancer Lily.

Here the fun begins, but while the film dances on the precipice of a steep fall into trash territory, the emotional urgency of Nina’s plight keeps it centered, even as Aronofsky dials the atmospherics (and Clint Mansell the thrilling Tchaikovsky orchestrations) up to 11.

Portman has never been so cannily cast, nor so cunningly exposed, on screen. When, early on, Cassel’s ceaselessly demanding director chides that he “sees only the White Swan” in Nina, and not the dark spontaneity required of its black counterpart, it could be a cheeky metaphor for the actress herself: long a lissome, delicate screen presence, she has sometimes struggled with conveying intensity or purposefulness. Here, the role cleverly forces the actress into her most pinched, peaky mannerisms — even her little-girl voice is pitched an octave higher than usual — only to undercut them as the character gradually loses her self-awareness; the resulting performance is as dangerous, and oddly touching, as Portman has ever allowed herself to be.

She’s bolstered by a trio of superb supporting players: Hershey and Cassel are clearly having a whale of a time with their helpless dragonry and arch oiliness, respectively, but it’s the cool, throaty-voiced Kunis who is the surprise package here, intelligently watching and reflecting her co-star in such a manner that we’re as uncertain as Nina of her ingenuousness. (There’s a neat cameo from Winona Ryder, too — notable mainly for gifting her with the unavoidably hilarious line, “You stole my things!”)

Frankly, the film would remain standing even without this wealth of human virtues, such is the richness and inventiveness of the craft it showcases.  Libatique, renewing his collaboration with Aronofsky after a one-film hiatus, excels himself here — no casual statement, that, and no casual feat, either — by fully exploiting the mobility of Super 16. You may marvel at the film’s alternately dank and lustrous still compositions, all metal and mirrors with the occasional rose blush, but the true wonder is his seamless participation in the ballet sequences, the camera as fluidly choreographed as the dancers themselves. Editor Andrew Weisblum, meanwhile, has devised a striking scheme of tracking the film’s rhythmic shifts, often knitting scenes together with unreturned glances and hanging lines of dialogue.

Both men (not to mention the film’s outstanding design team, makeup artists included) operate within an unsubtle black-white binary dictated by the script; some will find the attached symbolism overly pat, but such schematics feel appropriate both to the literate design of the narrative and the heightened, feverish mood Aronofsky is working in this time; not as extravagant as “The Fountain” nor as unhinged as “Requiem for a Dream,” it nonetheless feels like his riskiest venture to date, and his most opalescent film.

There will, I suspect, be those left cold by the film’s more mannered instincts, or those who feel it’s a genre-film concession too far for the director. Either way, however, “Black Swan” cements Aronofsky’s place as one of the biggest and most unruly thinkers working in the only notionally small aesthetic of American independent cinema — and that, if you choose to ignore everything I just argued in my opening paragraph, is something of a fairy tale itself.

[Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

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57 responses so far

  • 1 9-01-2010 at 11:14 pm

    Dustin said...

    Hey guys- I havnt had the nerve to post anything since Guy told me to get over myself with all my bitching about Monique last year. Since then I have taken a few film classes and went out and bought “Precious”…. and now stands as one of my favorite films of all time and YES an AMAZING game changing performance by Monique who 1000% deserved the Oscar. I want you both to know Im merely a film student and Ive learned to get over my own opinions and learn from the people who are trying to teach and spread the ideals of film, not just movies, but film. I check IC multiple times a day just to read you guys’ take on real films…because after 3 years i have learned to trust you guys most. Since “Black Swan” was first announced I couldnt wait! I always knew Natalie Portman was going to be amazing and was equally excited about Mila Kunis as well as Barbara Hershey (and glad the Winona rider is getting GOOD work). Ive seen “The Kids are all Right” and still think AB and JM should both be lead contenders for both actress categories. I love Anne Hathaway but feel she will win for eventually portraying Judy Garland. Natalie Portman has always been the best thing about the movie she is in… and honestly if anyone is going to beat Annette Benning its HER… but guys please tell me… is she THAT good?!?! Just FYI I hope she is that good. But I still want Annette to win… Im a gay man in a committed relationship that LOVED Loved loved “Kids”…. and is ready for a movie like this to get maximum exposure. How do u guys feel about the reality of what this movie can win? I think for sure it has a geniune chance at Actress, Supp. Actor, and screenplay. What do u guys think?

  • 2 9-02-2010 at 3:19 am

    Amy said...

    It’s high time that Natalie Portman is recognized as the true talent that she is. That gorgeous and ever-young face has perhaps held her back. I’d love to see her nominated for this.

  • 3 9-02-2010 at 8:56 am

    Robert said...

    So many factors go into the Oscar race. From a strong political angle, Bening is in a very good position (multiple past nominee, on the Academy board, universally praised performance), and it would take someone with near-universal praise to beat someone like her. She’s great in TKAAR and the movie has received strong critical praise. We’ll just have to see what other contenders will reap some of the same praise as the months go on, but at least Portman is also a strong contender. I’ve always been a fan of her work.

  • 4 12-12-2010 at 11:27 pm

    Rick Chung said...

    Natalie Portman shines in the BLACK SWAN

  • 5 10-13-2011 at 7:51 pm

    Damon said...

    Black Swan was one of the best movies that I’ve seen. Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman were both great! I can say that I have more respect for those who are in ballet. Black Swan was a movie that made you me think about what was happening. I got lost a few times, but I got it eventually. Maybe I should see it again just to be sure I have all the facts. I know that the Blockbuster Movie Pass was released earlier this month! I am really excited because the Blockbuster Movie Pass gives customers a huge selection of DVDs like Black Swan, along with thousands of TV shows and games by mail. Since it is being offered by DISH Network (who is also my employer), there are 20 channels that are included with the Movie Pass in addition to the thousands of movies and shows that you can stream to your TV or PC! Blockbuster also has many stores that you can exchange DVDs at and Blu-Rays are included! For all that, $10 per month is a great deal!