For two evenings last weekend, I sat crammed in standing room only movie theatres, witnessing what may very well be the best film of the year. Once wasn’t enough, you see. Because the minute Black Swan was finished, the only thing I demanded of myself was that I see it again. Immediately.
Darren Aronofsky’s new ballerina-gone-mad headtrip is right up his alley. He took a brief, but utterly brilliant detour with The Wrestler two years ago, and now he’s back to his warped ways, delivering a film that permeates with his unique eye for cinema.
In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays Nina, the most dedicated, obsessive dancer in her ballet company, as is evident by her strict instructor’s choice to cast her as both the White and Black Swan in his Swan Lake reprisal.
Like many artists, it’s pressure that forms the basis of Nina’s downfall. Pressure from Thomas, her no bullshit instructor (Vincent Cassell), pressure from a new dancer in the company (Mila Kunis), whose charming confidence is laced with her brimming sexuality, and pressure from Nina’s overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey).
Nina is wrapped in innocence and repression; the kind of woman who has never been given a chance to grow up. Her mother, who not-so-coincidentally is always wearing black, dresses and undresses Nina, prepares all of her meals, and even keeps her room decorated with pink butterflies on the wallpaper and enough stuffed animals to fill a toy store. As the various pressures culminate, Nina begins to implode, letting her stresses manifest themselves both physical and mentally.
Mild chaos ensues, narratives are reversed, characters are twisted and turned; all in the name of a first rate thriller.
The term tour de force is a common French expression used to describe an exceptional achievement by an artist. It’s a phrase that only begins to make sense of Natalie Portman’s performance in this movie. As Nina, Portman gives the most controlled, dedicated performance of her impressive career (and probably, this entire year). Rarely letting Nina speak just an octave or two above a whisper, Portman’s cold, yet determined gaze is enough to hook any viewer. Her shy, childlike take on Nina probably won’t land her an Oscar nomination, but her conviction during her many dance numbers could very well win her one.
Her dance sequences, pulled off with unwavering grace and discipline, demonstrate a performance of impeccable physical skill, rivaling that of Hilary Swank's in Million Dollar Baby (or any actor in any sports film, for that matter). Portman’s physical transformation, losing what appear to be several pounds off her already slender frame, is a sight to behold. Poetry in motion.
This helps, of course, because of gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s fluid camera work, Clint Mansell’s operatic musical score, and a trio of solid supporting performances.
Vincent Cassel excels as the cunningly ruthless, yet sometimes compassionately sympathetic, Thomas. It’s a tricky role, one that requires tonal shifts in every one of his scenes. Likewise Mila Kunis, who thus far has used her flawless beauty to excel comedically, but here is finally given a chance to flex her dramatic acting chops. Then there’s Barbara Hershey, who turns what could be a Carrie’s mother, they’re-all-gonna-laugh-at-you nutjob of a role into something far more layered.
Aronofsky doesn’t make simple films for simple people, instead, he challenges his viewers to except the fact that, however disturbing and discombobulated, his films will not escape your subconscious for days, weeks, months on end.
In a year filled with movies that say nothing, Black Swan is a revelation. It’s a film so coated in sleek design and hidden tricks, that one time simply isn’t enough. Like a great maestro hitting the crescendo of his final act, the applause for Black Swan continues well after its closing image. In the words of Portman, that is to say, Nina: “Perfect. It was perfect.” A+