Review: BLACK SWAN (2010) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Review: BLACK SWAN (2010)


Ballet has never looked this wickedly eerie in Darren Aronofsky's highly-anticipated BLACK SWAN, a worthy companion genre piece to his award-winning 2008's wrestling drama THE WRESTLER. Whereas THE WRESTLER marked the director's usual flamboyant visual style into an unlikely subdued restraint, BLACK SWAN is his polar opposite -- dark and unsettling in both subject and tone. In fact, the movie is leaning towards more into Aronofsky's significantly earlier masterpieces (1998's PI and 2000's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) -- something that die-hard fans have been long waiting for. On the other side, it's also a vividly realized character study about a young woman's overachieving struggle to succeed in a cutthroat and highly-demanding profession she has chosen, which in this case, the world of ballet dancing. This alone, thanks to a tour de force compelling performance by Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN is simply the kind of movie with enough curiosity values hard to be missed.

Twentysomething New York City ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Portman) has been long practicing very hard to rise to the top of the ranks among her colleagues in hope to nail the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a highly-anticipated production orchestrated by an acclaimed theater director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). While she is praised for her sharp precision in term of ballet dancing, Thomas remains doubtful about whether she's really up for the Swan Queen role. In fact, it's actually dual role she needs to master -- an angelic White Swan and a darker side of Black Swan -- both performances that require more than just perfect dance choreography. It need a lot of heart and character to pull this off convincingly, and this is what Nina is desperately wanted to achieve. After a few hesitations and setbacks, she is somewhat lucky enough to be given the role anyway especially after a fateful private encounter with Thomas. At the same time, Nina's newly-given role provokes the veteran and over-the-hill prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) who also wants the role desperately as well. But whatever it is, Nina is too thrilled to finally have the star role and so do her domineering mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who have been longed of seeing her at the peak of her career. And so the rehearsal begins, not to mention with all the rigorous energy Nina have to go through. Production is drawing near and she is completely overworked at that time until she becomes increasingly paranoid especially when the arrival of a new fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) is poised to steal her role away.

Psychological decline, paranoia and claustrophobia are the highlights of the movie here. Darren Aronofsky, Mark Herman, Andres Heinz and John McLoughlin's screenplay is fascinating and thought-provoking, the one that bristled with macabre intimacy it feels genuinely disturbing. Speaking of intimacy, cinematographer Matthew Libatique simply outdoes himself with his often handheld camerawork where he never stops following the protagonist (frequently from behind) and we witness everything she goes through -- from her hard work, her accomplishments, and finally her eventual downfall. The picture almost works like a semi-documentary feel, and thanks to Aronofsky's blistering direction, it's simply a grueling visual experience. While Aronofsky's style of direction is arguably too operatic for its own good but then again, that is just minor quibble. As a matter of fact, it's hard to ignore Aronofsky's sheer influence here that leaned towards the early work of David Cronenberg's body horror (split toenails and shoulder rash comes to mind) and Roman Polanski's psychological decay undertones (e.g. 1965's REPULSION and 1968's ROSEMARY BABY). In the meantime, the rest of the production values are equally top-notch with surrealistic art direction by David Stein and creepily innovative music score by Clint Mansell who actually reworked Tchaikovsky's classic Swan Lake playing in a backward and distorted manner. Creative peak is certainly the feverish height Aronofsky and his talented crew have worked so subtly here, especially considering the budget of the movie is only a measly $13 million to make.

But for all the kaleidoscopic fascination offers here, BLACK SWAN is mostly remembered for Natalie Portman's groundbreaking and Oscar-favored performance. She's certainly very dedicated to his physically and emotionally challenging role here. So dedicated that she lost 20 pounds to play her ballerina role convincingly. At one point, she twisted her rib during the filming of a dance sequence which took her six weeks for a full recovery and manage to continue her role with sheer enthusiasm. And this level of enthusiasm is evidently shown in the final product of what we see in her performance. Supporting cast, in the meantime, are as equally compelling, with Vincent Cassel perfectly embodies his unsentimental role as the ruthless ballet director Thomas Leroy. Then there's Mila Kunis, who lands in a surprisingly finest performance to date as the alluring and shady role of Lily. In fact, her Lily character strikes a terrific contrast to Portman's more innocent-looking Nina Sayers. Viewers will probably never forget her soon-to-be-iconic set piece where she involves in a fiery lesbian encounter with Nina. Barbara Hershey is deceptively frightening as the overprotective mother who keeps pushing her daughter Nina to strive for her very best, while Winona Ryder excels in a memorable cameo appearance as the ill-fated Beth who is eventually lead herself to a tragic doom.

While the movie is not for everyone, BLACK SWAN is nevertheless one of the best genre movies ever made in a long while, and not to mention among the year's best.

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