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black swan
a review
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)
12.13.10
film

A lot has been made of the fact that Darren Aronofsky, brilliant director of our times, has gone from making a movie about a down and out wrestler to making a movie about an up and coming ballerina. This is often presented as though it is a seismic shift, when it is actually the same thing. Most dancers live with a startling urgency, as if they already know that their time is limited and that their body will betray them -- immediately and violently -- the minute they stop dancing. So then, presenting the high stakes world of professional ballet as a horror film is not only rational, but overdue.

Black Swan, Mr. Aronofsky's most recent film, is a companion piece to his previous film, The Wrestler, in many ways. Both, among other things, feature

1) protagonists whom are ultimately their own worst enemies

and

2) amazing detail into the intimate despair of ambitious athletes.

It is no surprise to learn that they were, at one point, supposed to be one film.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a fragile New York City ballerina whose obsession with perfection is actually a hindrance to her progression. Her ballet company's director, Thomas Leroy -- played with All That Jazz-ian flourish by Vincent Cassel -- tells her as much. Their company is performing Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, but Thomas has made the unusual choice of making the same ballerina play both the (menacing) Black Swan and (virginal) Swan Queen. He chooses Nina, whom, of course, can perform the elegant Swan Queen in her sleep, but struggles with the rougher, more emotional demands of playing its arch nemesis.

Meanwhile, troupe member Lily (Mila Kunis), who lacks Nina’s discipline, but whose effortless performance style and latent edginess is as well suited to the Black Swan as Nina is to Queen Swan, lingers. Along the way, as Nina attempts to gain ground she confronts unflattering snapshots of her future (via her equally controlling, ex-ballerina mother, Barbara Hershey, and the aging, volatile ballerina she is replacing, Winona Ryder) and her present (her mind and body betray her constantly, leaving the audience just as confused as she is.) Unknown to any of the characters, the movie's plot begins to mirror the ballet's and ultimately Black Swan is an adaptation of Tchiavkovsky's Swan Lake about an adaptation of Tchiavkovsky's Swan Lake.

In this movie, especially as Lily emerges as a manipulative, all too eager bad influence (or is she??), danger seems to await Nina at every turn. When she is not failing miserably at rehearsals and overwhelmed by sexual tension for both Thomas and Lily, Nina is stalked by her own images (not to mention perverse senior citizens) in broad daylight. Subways, alleys, empty dance studios -- any Manhattan location is a prime opportunity for Nina to continue her lessening grip on reality. Paranoid political thrillers of the '70s come to mind at times: Black Swan is All the President's Men if that movie were about dancers; Nina is Bernstein/Woodward and the thug chasing them through dark parking lots. Without having seen the other Oscar hopefuls for Best Actress, I have no idea how anyone’s going to beat her. Her performance is so virile, so alive, so fragile, so defiant, so, well.... perfect, I just don’t see how anyone can compare.

Matthew Libatique's haunting but flexible cinematography chronicles Nina's world, a world where -- in staying with the theme -- beauty and ugliness are next door neighbors. Clint Mansell's score, as always, is excellent; he flips Tchaikovsky's original ballet to the left and backwards, accentuating and contemporarizing its inherent creepiness.

Aronofsky, as much as any director of his generation, excels in getting us to root for protagonists who are hell bent on self-destruction. He has much sympathy and understanding for his lead characters; we know them intimately and see the world as they do. This is why we still pull for them, even when their behavior is less than honorable. This is no small feat, particularly in a decade that is short on critical thinking skills and aggressively fearful of ambiguity.

The ending, though not for everyone (particularly the loudmouth sitting behind me at my recent screening) is the most jaw-dropping finale to a film set in the world of show business since All About Eve, another film that Black Swan brings to mind. While working on my own drama that may come off like a horror film, I found Black Swan timely and strangely inspiring. To strive for excellence and actually arrive there is forever, no matter how bumpy and frightening the road.


ABOUT JASON GILMORE

Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

more about jason gilmore

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COMMENTS

mike julianelle
12.13.10 @ 11:21a

From what I've heard so far, the potentially squirm-inducing body horror scenes are pretty harrowing. Not psyched about those.

But if the movie is as reminiscent of Repulsion as it sounds by your review (and as another critic I've read claimed), I can't wait to see it.

Because Repulsion OWNS.

tracey kelley
12.19.10 @ 7:01p

OMG.

Saw this today - cannot believe the intensity and the mind trip of it all. Natalie Portman radiates such a white hot madness with amazing fragility, it's amazing.



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