December 13, 2010

Review: Natalie Portman Becomes the 'Black Swan'

"A camp classic, like Showgirls remade by Roman Polanski." — David Edelstein

Natalie Portman proves herself with an incredibly daring, brave performance that leaves everything on the screen. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) shows his visceral filmmaking abilities once again, crafting a true auteur's tale into the dark, disturbing side of professional dance and ballet in Black Swan. Yes, ballet. I will never look at the art the same again as the film showcases not only the beauty of dance, but also the sheer horror it.

Aronofsky constructs the film as a creative retelling of Tchaikovsky's famous Swan Lake as the actual ballet serves at the centre of the plot. The whole White Swan/Black Swan theme plays perfectly as Portman's Nina Sayers ballerina character's biggest enemy is herself as she internalizes her own conflicts. Aronofsky adds sublime elements of absolute terror and frightening scares subtlety to great effect. The thrills are truly disturbing and unexpected. He brings so much to the table with careful construction of every scene and frame of film.

Portman delivers an intensely brave performance as a coddled dancer living with a demanding, overbearing stage mom. Portman's Nina parallels the good girl essence of the White Swan, struggling to let go of her insecurities and embrace the darkness, carefree, reckless abandon, and sexuality of the Black Swan. She throws herself entirely into the role without hesitation and limitations, committing herself to the struggles of Nina's psychosis.

Due to her overcommitment to dance and her tireless efforts, Nina descends into madness as she struggles to capture the essence of the more freeing nature of the Black Swan character. The portrayal by Portman is raw, visceral, and terrifying as she bears herself completely, letting go of the hangups her character cannot.

The supporting cast rounds out Portman and her manic nature superbly. Barbara Hershey is eerily creepy as her overbearing mother, but never overshadows Portman. Her manic behaviour is only cleverly alluded to. Mila Kunis is effortless and casually watchable as Lily, Nina's dancing foil and the sexy, loose embodiment of the Black Swan.

Showing up to play a haggard dancer and foreshadow Nina's descent into madness is Winona Ryder with another bizarre yet fitting performance. Vincent Cassel walks the fine line of inspired artist and sexist jerk well as the ballet director who constantly challenges Nina. The sexual nature of these relationships are handled so well cinematically and emotionally as a true reflection of Nina's tightly wound personality that explodes. The last twenty minutes are wholly gripping.

This film serves aptly as a female companion piece to Mr. Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler. Both pictures are about the obsessive, intensely destructive nature of performers, far too dedicated to their craft leading to their destruction and eventual undoing. Aronofsky and long-time cinematography collaborator Matthew Libatique (Iron Man) employ the same grainy, filmic handheld feel of that film with long shots and takes of the title character walking from behind splendidly.

Black Swan is epic, artful storytelling at its best. The visuals paired with stunningly beautiful dance sequences and a musically enchanting score by Clint Mansell create a truly haunting film at its core. Portman's powerfully deep performance of an obsessive, paranoid dancer, struggling with her art and life are gripping in every scene. Director Darren Aronofsky paints a terrifying portrait of dance and despair. Most intriguing of all, Black Swan reveals the flaws in great and ambitious artists who crumble, striving for perfection.

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