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Monday, January 31, 2011

Black Swan

Black Swan is a visceral thrill; it is a non-stop feast for the eyes. There is always something interesting to look at. It is a spectacle. The story concerns a ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman) as she prepares to dance the dual role in Swan Lake. Having been cast by her somewhat slimy director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) for her innate similarity to the pure and innocent White Swan, Odette, she struggles immensely to play Odile, the seductive and destructive Black Swan. These struggles are intensified by the calm cruelness of her mother (Barbara Hershey), the presence of a new rival perhaps more suited for her part (Mila Kunis), and by the lingering pall cast over the show by the self-destructive path of the company former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder).

The film is self-consciously concerned with art and artists, specifically whether technical skill or innate ability is paramount. Cassel’s Thomas seems to exist only to remind Nina that she doesn’t have any sex appeal, and it’s a testament to Portman’s acting abilities that you almost believe him. The film layers this concern with art with an age-old psychological question about dual natures: is there good and evil present in every man and woman? Is there always something more than meets the eye, something below the surface, and is it better to keep it there?

Aronofsky expertly steeps the horror of the film in the minutiae of real life, making the terror felt by Nina all the more relatable and chilling. The fright I felt every time Portman picked at her fingertips was greater than any I’ve felt at a masked man jumping out of closet door. These little terrors helped ground the film, allowing for the more fanciful elements later on, as Nina’s psychological torment deepened.

For such a stylish spectacle, Black Swan features great acting from both Portman and Barbara Hershey. Portman’s performance is getting much notice for its physical nature, its cracked toes, rail-thin body, and broken ribs. But there is great underplayed terror present on her face and a whole host of other emotions as well. See the scene where Nina is picked for the starring role and calls her mother from the bathroom. It’s a real killer of a scene, wrenching and convincing, and all based on a look of the face and a single line of dialogue: “He picked me, Mommy.”

Hershey has been criminally denied an Oscar nomination for her performance. She’s a horror movie psychopath of the kind you might actually meet on the street. The kind who know they have to hide their true nature from all but the people they can control. Hershey nails the subtle tones of voice, the carefully chosen phrases, and the threats hidden behind a smile. And when she loses it, she really loses it, and it’s all the more fearsome for what came before. Personally I’m a little surprised that the big story seemed to be on Kunis’ snub. I didn’t really see anything in her role that merited awards consideration. She did a fine job, but the part presented no difficulties that I could sense.

As the film rushes toward its inevitable conclusion the tension ratchets up even further. This is a movie that goes to 11 on a scale of 10.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a horror film for art-house types. Or is it an art-house film with mass appeal? Whatever it is, it is a hugely entertaining spectacle and the best film I’ve seen from 2010.*

*I still have not seen The King’s Speech, the presumptive Oscar winner for Best Picture.

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