Saturday, December 18, 2010

Movie Review: Black Swan

Black Swan chronicles a prima ballerina’s descent into madness and it is both beautiful and horrific. The story of Swan Lake starts out as if it’s destined for the animated Disney treatment. An evil sorcerer casts a spell on a beautiful princess turning her into a beautiful swan. Only a confession of true love can break the spell and as fate would have it, a young prince becomes smitten with her. However, this is where the story takes a dark and unDisney-like turn. The sorcerer tricks the prince into falling for the seductive Black Swan, who impersonates our pure princess and gets the prince to declare his love to her. When the deception is revealed, the star-crossed lovers realize that they can only be united in death.

I can tell you the story of Swan Lake because it is a backdrop for Black Swan and it isn’t the story of Black Swan. Black Swan is about Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a sweet ballerina with a doting former ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey). For several years, Nina has danced with a major New Your City dance company, with aging prima ballerina Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), when she is offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) picks Nina for the lead in the company’s new production of Swan Lake. Although he appreciates her technical perfection and has no doubt she can master the role of the White Swan, he doubts she has the ability to let loose and become the seductress needed to master the Black Swan role.

As we get to know Nina, we can see his reservations. She and her mother live in a happy bubble that consists of Nina’s ballet and her mother’s artwork. The décor of Nina’s bedroom gives us a glimpse into her world — complete with teddy bears in tutus and its 14-year old girl motif. Her innocence is painfully obvious when she’s with the other girls in the troupe. She doesn’t fit in with the catty, Mean Girls atmosphere. In fact, you question if Nina has what it takes to make it in the competitive, cutthroat world of dance.

Then a new girl joins the company. Lily (Mila Kunis) effortlessly embodies the essence of the Black Swan. She’s seductive. She takes chances. She’s even a little dangerous. Nina is immediately intrigued but keeps her at an arm’s length, at least initially. However, as her obsession with nailing the Black Swan takes over, she and Lily get closer.

Director Darren Aronofsky has crafted a psychological thriller that uses the demanding and all-consuming world of ballet to show one woman’s descent into madness. It’s beautiful and graceful and at the same time brutal. Aronofsky shows the physical sacrifices that dancers must endure for their art. He also uses a growing rash on Nina’s back to mirror Nina’s psychological change.

As she begins to embody the Black Swan, we see Nina actually grow up before our eyes. She questions her mother. She allows herself to experience her sexuality, first timidly and then boldly. As she puts her innocence aside, her interpretation and performance of the Black Swan improves.

The kudos and acclaim Portman has received is well-deserved and an Oscar could very well be in her future. While I enjoyed Kunis as the catalyst, Lily, her part was not as big as I thought it would be. The person who surprised me the most in her supporting role was Winona Ryder as the aging ballerina forced into retirement. At turns bitchy, bitter and needy, I think her performance as good as it was, is being largely overlooked.

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