Black Swan (Review)

BLACK SWAN
(12/03/10; Thriller)
Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
SCR: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
DIR: Darren Aronofsky
MPAA: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
1 hour 48 mins
BOX: $106,888,255

Much like Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), this horrific character drama peels back the curtains on the lengths someone will go to for their art, especially if the art defines them to the point of warping their worldview. Portman has the role of a lifetime as Nina, an obsessive ballet dancer stars in a new stripped-down version of Swan Lake.

This requires her to not only dance like the virginal and frigid “white swan,” but to embrace the voluminous carnality of the “black swan,” something the exacting Nina has problems with. She trains to the point of vomiting from the stress and hallucinating. Perhaps this is due to her overprotective and manipulative mother (Hershey) or the sudden appearance of her own black swan Lily (Kunis), a free-spirited dancer who is as lustful and confident as Nina is not; or maybe it’s because the celebrated director (Cassel) has a very, ahem, hands-on approach to get Nina to “lose herself.”

Well, without revealing too much of the story, Nina does lose herself. For better or worse, Black Swan devolves into a Guignol-inspired horror show that may or may not be playing out inside Nina’s psyche. Aronofsky keeps the camera close, even during the dancing sequences, employing sparse and effective use of horror beats and clever visuals. Hint: keep watching the mirrors.

This is not an easy film to sit through: it’s unflinchingly graphic and tense, especially where the bodily ravages of endless dancing are concerned. The performances veer wildly between solid thesping and high camp but everyone is memorable. Hershey is so suffocating, one expects her to break into a tizzy over wire hangers; Cassel manages to be slimy and yet completely dedicated to his craft. Kunis, previously a comedic actor, emerges as a fully-sexual creature. Ryder appears briefly as the resentful, drunken deposed ballet queen.

But all eyes are on Portman, who loses herself in an unparalleled performance that takes her to places she’s never come close to before. It’s not just sudden bursts of sexuality and violence. By the film’s (much-debated) finale, Portman has transformed completely.

Now, that’s acting. As expected, Potman won the Academy Award for Best Actress. (Fox Searchlight)

— DENNIS WILLIS

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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