this day was coming. The demise of indie subdivisions meant fewer indie movies would get the financial backing necessary to truly shine. Last year's Precious (our movie of the decade, and as such, until we complete a new one, our movie of the century) and Big Fan both hid the fact that the overall level of filmmaking had dropped in 2009. It dropped again in 2010. This was also true for New York based films and there was no Precious or Big Fan to cover up that fact. Instead, an ambitious, impulsive, stylized, beautifully shot, well acted, but at times silly and at other times empty film, Black Swan, takes the top prize. Decades from now people won't look back to this Aronofsky piece as fondly as they currently do Pi, but there is still a lot here to enjoy.
Black Swan starts and ends with Natalie Portman's performance.
She plays Nina Sayers, a professional dancer for an internationally renowned ballet company based in New York City. Despite her artistic background in one of the world's most eclectic neighborhoods, the Upper West Side, Nina lives in a bubble. She eats and breathes dancing but knows little else. Her days often begin with the cracking of abused toes, the breaking in of a new set of ballerina slippers. Small sounds which are just as prevalent in her life as the big and lively Tchaikovsky pieces which she and her fellow dancers interpret on stage.
At home, Nina, mid 20s, still lives with her incredibly overbearing mother, Erica, played superbly by Barbara Hershey. Erica Sayers, a failed ballerina who gave up on the profession upon getting pregnant at the age of 28, relentlessly pushes Nina to reach the heights she never did. In the process, Erica keeps her only child almost sequestered from anything not related to dance.
At work, Nina's childlike state is just as vulnerable as she is again controlled and manipulated. This time the abusive adult is played by the ballet company's director, Thomas LeRoy. Nina's intensely rigorous, round-the-clock training however, does little in garnering friendship from other dancers or even the respect of their company's director. Instead, Thomas, a chauvinistic brute, played by excellent French actor, Vincent Cassel, smugly belittles Nina for not letting go of her religiously rehearsed moves. A technical master, Nina lacks in spirit, passion and the sensuality needed to ever reach prima ballerina status.
Desperate to please both her mother and director, while also trying to discover her nonexistent spirit, Nina reaches a breaking point. The pressures to succeed inside the uber competitive dance world leads to an emotional meltdown. Her fragile state only intensifies as Nina meets Lily, a San Francisco based dancer, who has worked with Thomas in the past. Played surprisingly well by That '70s Show sitcom star, Mila Kunis, Lily brings a casual attitude to her craft. The polar opposite of Nina (both in dancing style and personality) it is Lily who kindles a passion within Nina. She leaves Nina not only perplexed and jealous but sexually aroused as well. The simultaneous overflow of emotions pushes the sheltered dancer over the edge. On the stage and in her everyday life she rebels and learns to let go. In the process, she becomes a more complete dancer. One suddenly capable of playing both the required White and Black Swan roles for an upcoming rendition of Swan Lake.
Thomas, looking for a sexual favor in return, decides to take a chance on the virginal, Nina. Aware of her technical skills and uncompromising work ethic, he gives her the starring role of Queen Swan in a new rendition of Swan Lake. Her ability to play the White Swan never in question, he hopes she can continue to develop enough spirit to play the Black Swan with equal perfection. What Thomas doesn't realize is that as Nina becomes a more complete dancer, what she is truly developing is a state of paranoia. As that paranoia sets in, Nina discovers a way of breaking free from her authoritarian lifestyle. Despite new freedoms and new levels of success, the troubled dancer is further traumatized upon meeting former prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre. Beth, played in over the top fashion by, Winona Ryder, is stuck in a hospital bed. Her career over following a horrific car accident, Beth watches in madness as the dancing world has moved on without her. Abandoned by Thomas as well as his followers, Beth is filled with a rage that spills over to an increasingly paranoid, Nina. Even while still climbing to new heights in her career, it is through Beth that Nina envisions her ultimate fall.
Just before reaching the apex of her dancing career, and again, aware of her ultimate demise ahead, Nina becomes completely unhinged. Unfortunately, so does the movie.
Up until the film's final act Aronofsky had, like one of his ballerina's, danced over the fine line between drama and melodrama. His moving camera, quick cuts, and limited use of C.G.I. had also danced over the fine line between bold and kitschy. From a certain rash on Nina's back, to a certain tattoo on Lily's back, he danced between foreshadowing and simply being too on the nose. Even in character names like, Nina, the girl, and LeRoy, the King, he playfully danced over certain symbolisms.
It is upon reaching the film's conclusion where Aronofsky sadly falls back into his bad habit of needing to provide shock value. He spends most of that final act tripping over all of the fine lines as he unnecessarily attempts to add a "slasher" angle to his work. Like Nina herself, the film because its own worst enemy. Using the most basic and silly of thriller elements, like shattered limbs and mirrors that talk back, Aronofsky pretentiously tries marrying high brow ballet with low brow horror films.
And just when it's all about to fall apart, Nina, saves the day. Through Nina, Natalie Portman delivers beautifully in tying all of the film's latter and clumsier pieces together in creating an ending worthy of the original Swan Lake. What Nina finds in losing herself is the ultimate albeit fleeting feeling of perfection. A perfect ending for an imperfect film.*
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