Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 12/3/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 2, 2010

The actor's nightmare is to stand on a stage performing a piece for which you have forgotten or to which you never knew the lines. Black Swan opens with a dream—a dancer's dream but a performer's nonetheless—in which she is dancing the role of the White Swan from Swan Lake but with different choreography. She knows it and has not forgotten it; indeed, she dances it to perfection.

For Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is prepared. She practices every day in front of a mirror, at one point pirouetting until her toe nail cracks. In one moment of seemingly normal conversation, the camera cuts briefly to her feet, en pointe, as though on stage. She not only knows the technique with every fiber of her being, but she is also ready at an instant to dance. It is all she knows and wants.

Her gradual shift from an innocent child, whose mother (Barbara Hershey) undresses her and tucks her into bed every night in a bed surrounded by pink wallpaper featuring butterflies and watched over by stuffed animals, into a woman unhinged and undone is the paradox of the performer: a simultaneous nightmare and dream come true.

Director Darren Aronofsky envisions the contradictory nature of one equal part egotistical and insecure as a surreal yet highly personal experience. It is a film unafraid of overt, freakish symbolism and that refuses to offer easy answers—never pushing blame on any single participant while exploring where responsibility lies.

After the dream, it turns out that Nina's ballet company has indeed chosen Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake as its season opener. The resident prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) has, according to the gossiping company dancers, outlived her star, and no matter how many defenses Nina offers ("She's a beautiful dancer," and some dancers continue much later in life than where Beth is at), it does not change the fact that the artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is holding auditions for one dancer to play both the good and pure White Swan and her evil twin the Black Swan.

The White Swan is, as we know, Nina's dream role, but Thomas, convinced beyond all doubt that she could play it, is unsure about her ability to achieve the seductive quality needed for the twin. He tests her in his office, after she's come "all dolled up" to convince him, and gives her the dual role after she fights off his advances.

Nina's conflict, apart from the feelings of being superior and inferior at the same time, is one of sexual repression and awakening—encouraged by her mother Erica and Thomas respectively. Aronofsky paints a lifetime of mother-daughter tension in precise details. At home with mom, Nina has no privacy, even beyond that nightly ritual. Her mother calls her daughter's cell phone repeatedly whenever Nina is not at home. One morning, Nina awakes to spot her mother sitting in front of her bedroom door, apparently shielding her from whatever evil, corrupting force Erica believes is out in the world when her daughter is not rehearsing. The truly twisted part of the overly protective relationship is that, in a way and to a certain degree, Erica is in the right, even if the only reason Nina needs defense from the world is her cloistered upbringing.

On the other end is Thomas, who starts asking Nina probing questions about her life like an incestuous father figure. Does she have a boyfriend (No)? Has she had many (A few but not too many)? Is she a virgin (She says no, but there's a hesitation, either at the personal nature of the query or the belief of needing to lie)? He gropes her during a rehearsal to show her what seduction is like. He gives her an assignment to "touch herself" (which is what she is doing when she notices mom asleep in the corner). The reward, beyond achieving the "perfection" of performance Nina constantly seeks, is that Thomas may one day call her his "little princess" in the same way he once called Beth before she outlived her use to him.

Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin do not turn either Erica or Thomas into villainous figures. Thomas believes he is behaving in Nina's best interest as an artist, while Erica's certainly pushes her own failure to succeed as a ballet dancer on to Nina (One dialogue between the two, as Nina's rebellious streak becomes more confident, the two verbally stab at each other, turning the other's emotional wounds against her). Even so, it is Nina's drive that pushes her to the edge and inevitably over it.

Eventual decline is always present in Nina's mind, heightened by the way Beth reacts to being replaced and represented by scenes of Nina's body falling apart. She imagines cuts appearing on herself beyond the actual damage and slow decay brought on by extensive physical effort over time. One unsettling scene watches as she takes a cut on the cuticle of her finger and suddenly rips off a chunk of flesh.

That is all in her mind, but the scratches on her back are genuine. She unconsciously does it to herself, like a nervous tic she cannot control. Erica cuts her nails to an extremely short length but still they appear. She has no memory of scratching but suddenly there is blood under her fingernails, and in one flash of revelation, one reflection of Nina in an infinite row begins picking away at the spot.

Aronofsky films from her perspective. The camera hovers closely behind her head in tracking shots or holds on her face as the pressure of internal conflict mounts. She begins to have minor hallucinations, seeing her own face on the face of her competition Lily (Mila Kunis), who comes to check up on her with good intentions or ill plans in the dark shadows of the dance studio. Her fear of Lily replacing turns eventually turns obsessive. The whispers and laughs of fellow dancers are deafening, and knowing how they talk behind another's back, Nina assumes the giggles of derision are aimed at her.

The buildup of delusions grows more and more furious as opening night approaches, and Aronofsky creates a continuous, rising sense of unease as Nina's ego and insecurity clash. In a mesmerizing scene on stage during the ballet (Clint Mansell's score masterfully weaves Tchaikovsky's music within his own homage to the composer), Nina accomplishes the Method actor's ultimate aspiration through a literal metamorphosis.

Portman, who does her own dancing, reveals each and every layer of Nina's intricate psychological state. It's a wholly daring, candid performance, chilling to the core.

Uncompromising in its stylistic decisions and devastating in its intimate exploration of destroying to create, Black Swan is itself a haunting portrait of the unraveling mind of an artist.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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