Saturday, December 11, 2010

Movie Review: "Black Swan"

Natalie Portman finally delivers on the potential she's only previously hinted at in "Black Swan," a delirious and haunting psychological drama set in the competitive world of ballet.

Ever since capturing audiences' attention as a child in 1994's "The Professional," Portman has been on the cusp of delivering a performance to cement her status not only as a movie star, but as a serious actress. Roles in the "Star Wars" trilogy and "V for Vendetta," plus a popular "Saturday Night Live" digital short, kept her popular with the mainstream and, occasionally, performances in films like "Closer" would hint at what she is truly capable of.

Prior to "Black Swan," however, Portman has failed to deliver a performance that lingers after the credits have rolled. While a capable actress, there's always been a woodenness to much of her work, a coldness that keeps her from totally losing herself in a role and going beyond the poise of mere acting to deliver a truly memorable performance.

Much as he did with Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," director Darren Aronofsky points Portman at a role that forces her out of her comfort zone and pushes her to deliver not only the performance of her career, but one of the very best of 2010.

Nina Sayers, much like Portman herself, is an artist too poised and perfect to be phenomenal. A ballerina in New York, she struggles under a womanizing director (Vincent Cassel) and goes home to a mother (Barbara Hershey) who bitterly reminds Nina of all she's sacrificed to support her dream.

After violently rejecting his sexual advances, the director thinks Nina may be perfect for the lead role in "Swan Lake." His concern, however, is that while the artist is precise and perfect enough for the role of the White Swan, she doesn't have the lust and recklessness needed to take on the role of the Black Swan. As Nina struggles to unlock her passion, reality begins to disintegrate around her, and things get even more disorienting when classmate Lily (Mila Kunis) enters the picture. As the performance nears, Nina is unsure whether this new addition to her life is a teammate, competitor, friend or lover. And what, exactly, is she to make of the scratches, cuts and other afflictions that mysteriously show up on her arms, legs and back?

Madness is not a new subject for Aronofsky, who previously tackled the link between insanity and genius in his debut, "Pi," and further examined the disintegration of reality in the haunting "Requiem for a Dream." One could also find a connection between "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan," as the director returns to a world where people sacrifice themselves for their art.

Unlike "The Wrestler's" gritty reality, however, "Black Swan" is filmed with an operatic sense of style and several tricks designed to unsettle audiences as Nina begins to crack under the pressure. Aronofsky skillfully allows reality to crumble around us, be it through startling in-camera trickery in a shot where Nina enters her mother's art studio, quick flashes of a reflection in a mirror or his use of computer-generated effects in the final dance sequence, as dancers sprout feathers, and reality and fantasy blur together in ways that only an artist can totally understand. Aronofsky skillfully filters everything through Nina's perspective, and if we're unsure of what's real it's only because she is as well.

Aronofsky largely keeps things from getting too confusing, although the narrative begins to slip away from him in the film's final act. There's a fine line between disorientation and confusion, and as the film breaks further from reality, the story loses its tenuous grasp on coherence, until many of the relationships and plot threads we've followed throughout the film are abandoned in favor of delivering a hauntingly beautiful dance sequence for the climax.

The film fares much better when it comes to atmospherics. I've already lauded Aronofsky's ability to shift reality and get audiences into Nina's fragile mind. But "Black Swan" also would be a riveting view if it were just about the world of ballet. Aronofsky is drawn to the way dancers' bodies move in the spotlight, the way the skin and muscles react to movement, and the color and light of the stage. It's one of the most beautifully photographed looks at theater I've seen and the final 30 minutes are among the most breathtakingly filmed of the year.

Sexuality is also a tricky subject to tackle in a film so centered on its characters' burgeoning lust and passions. Many have remarked about a scene in which Portman's and Kunis' characters make love, a scene that could easily have been prurient and gratuitous. Aronofsky's approach to Nina's awakening sexuality is vital to the films themes. While unflinching and heated, the film's approach to Nina's rising passions is handled with taste and power, and fuels the movie's emotional backbone.

The film wouldn't achieve that power, however, without a series of fantastic performances. Hershey is effective in her brief role as Nina's overprotective mother and Cassel nails it as the tough, womanizing director. Kunis ("Forgetting Sarah Marshal") has been slowly turning into a star herself and ably goes toe to toe with Portman, with Lily being the uninhibited dancer Nina wishes she could become.

But it's still Portman, wrenching her body and mind apart as Nina tries to unlock her passion, who commands all attention. She's simply never been this powerful, nuanced and unpredictable. By the time Nina takes the stage in the finale, fully embodying the role of the Black Swan, it's not only the character who has transformed. This role marks the arrival of Portman as a serious actress and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Originally published in the December 12 edition of the Advisor/Source newspaper,

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.