Sunday, December 5, 2010

Madness and Melodrama -- Reflections on "Black Swan" (2010)

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille..."
Man, am I thankful that my little girl didn't continue dancing ballet.

I'm only half serious.

Black Swan, the dark, melodramatic thriller from director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem of a Dream, The Wrestler) made me revise my annual list of the top 10 films. This story, about a dancer who descends into madness, is horrific, disturbing, erotic, and moving. Like great films, it draws us into its unique world and once it has us there, it slams the door behind us and has fun screwing with our perception of events. It also features a performance by Natalie Portman full of intense bravura and passion that will no doubt be remembered fondly come Oscar time.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) works at a ballet company preparing for a new season to be kicked off with a production of Swan Lake. She has hoped for the part of the Swan Queen -- dreamed of it -- but according to Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the company's demanding director, Nina is only capable of performing half of the role. She is perfect for the innocent, sweet, White Swan, but seems unable to find the loose, seductive, darkness within herself necessary to play the Black Swan.

Thomas seems to be right. Nina is a woman who is in a state of arrested development. She lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), who helps her get dressed for bed, tucks her in, and turns on the music box to lull Nina to sleep at night. Nina's room looks like it hasn't changed since she was eight years old, papered with pinks, and filled with stuffed animals.

Nina's darker side seems to emerge in fits and starts. She is in awe of the ballet company's former star, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), and steals make-up from her dressing room. She discovers painful scratches on her back, and seems to constantly be hurting herself. It's not until the company gets a new addition in the form of the tattooed, free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis) that Nina finds the trigger that begins to push her deeper into the dark territory of her mind.

The first two acts of the film are taut and suspenseful, but the third act is mesmerizing and truly makes this a movie you will want to watch multiple times. Aronofsky's direction brings out the beauty and the chaos of ballet, his camera sweeping in and around the dancers like a character itself, allowing us to experience the dance from the point-of-view of the dancers. It's easy to understand why the pressures of this world would drive a perfectionist like Nina crazy, and it makes Portman's character one of the most unique to grace a movie screen this year.

Some might be turned off by the melodrama here, and certainly many critics have already stated that the movie goes too far sometimes. One critic claimed, "expecting subtlety from a Darren Aronofsky film is like expecting Pixar to announce a slasher movie." I won't argue the notion that the film is not subtle -- it's intentionally over-the-top. It's this brazen approach, though, that gives the movie its strength. Frankly, a subtle movie about ballet dancing would feel long and dull, I think even for ballet dancers. Aronofsky's style is not for everyone, but he is so confident in how he approaches the story that you can't help but get caught up in it all.

Definitely put Black Swan on your must-see list this year. If you have a little girl, it will also make you rethink putting her in ballet shoes.

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