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December 27, 2010

Black Swan

(2010, Dir. by Darren Aronofsky.)

I've just seen the film, but I'm going to react very rapidly to Black Swan.  A horror film dressed up as an Oscar drama, the film seems to apply itself directly to the inquisitive parts of the viewer's brain, and it most definitely has made a strong first impression on this one.

Natalie Portman stars as an aspiring ballerina who strives for accuracy with every movement of her life.  But, as she moves into the dual role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake by her commanding director (Vincent Cassel) she is continually told to loosen up, to let go, and to feel the role as she tries to fill the feathers of the seductive and dangerous black swan.  She struggles mightly with these instructions, as her mind seems to be focusing on only the instructed methods of success, but she gains some release from her perfectionist attitude (which is certainly instilled by her former ballerina mother) when she meets a new dancer (Mila Kunis) who seems to be her polar opposite.  The film paints the characters obviously, with Portman's Nina wearing mostly whites and grays, while Kunis' tattooed Lily is constantly in black.  An early scene in which Cassel's character spells out the story of the musical for the untrained audience is very important to the film's plot, as the parallels between the characters and their work run deep.

Those caught up in the film's plot only might find the film a bit lacking, but it's the playful, yet artistic approach Aronofsky brings to the table that kept my mind rolling with the film.  The fun of Black Swan does not lie in figuring out the twists or determining what did or didn't happen, though the viewer will have plenty of questions to consider as they do try to put the pieces together.  Like the best mysteries, Black Swan draws our interest to the path toward an answer; it's how we get to a resolution that really pulls the strings for the viewer.

The performances are fantastic across the board, with Portman a surefire award contender for her performance in the lead.  She seems to be playing the same kind of innocent role we're used to seeing her in, but she turns the switch - like her character's onstage role - against us with ease at times and creates a deeper and more interesting character by doing so.  Cassel is perfectly smarmy as the lone male character who seems to dominate the women of the film, and Kunis is excellent in what seems like a more simple role as the understudy.  Also shining, as always, is FMWL favorite Barbara Hershey as Nina's overprotective mother, and her performance is crucial to the film effectively building tension as Nina's puzzle becomes more convoluted.

There is a surprising amount of horror throughout the film, including physical and psychological attempts at disorienting the viewer.  There's plenty of blood and a bit of slashing that occurs, and the sound effects that accompany these moments are some of the best parts of the film's fantastic sound design (this one uses a surround sound system as well as any film I've seen this year).  But the film really preys on its characters psychology, and some of the best moments of unease occur when we think we see something that we shouldn't be seeing.  Nina's paranoia builds through these sights, which gives more power to some of her more uncomfortable encounters with her director and her mother.  Nina's plight also includes some insight into her sexuality (one scene has already become notorious across the world wide web), and these developments seem to combine with the abusive nature of her competitive job to create even more unease.

Black Swan is destined for a lot of year-end accolades, and this is certainly the most acclaimed film that crosses into the horror genre in some time.  I can't help feeling there's something a bit off about the film - I certainly haven't given myself a lot of time to let all the full film's implications settle before throwing these words out there - but the instant response it's created is one of respect and admiration.  Aronofsky, Portman, and others have put together a film that's technically sound and mentally stimulating, and if nothing else I'm sure I'll keep thinking about it for some time to come.  On that basis alone, I strongly recommend diving into Black Swan for some psycho-sexual chills.

2 comments:

Emily said...

I also found the visuals, sound, and performance to be quite incredible but I totally agree that there's something off and I'll blame the writing. Maybe The Wrestler is just too strong in my head, but Black Swan just feels so much more obvious. The story is so simple, so I just wish the dialogue was a tad more interesting. I loved it, but I can't call it a great movie.

The Mike said...

Hmmmm, good call. There's a moment early when I leaned to a friend and said "And that's how the movie will end"...and sure enough, it did. Simple is a good way of putting it.