DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky
FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
PLOT: A shy up-and-coming ballet dancer lands the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”
Obsessed with perfection and paranoid that the dual role will be taken away from her, she struggles to become both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan characters.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological horror-thriller, no doubt about it, and in many ways it sticks to the conventions of that kind of film . But at the same time, Black Swan is so eerie, so unsettling, and so strange in its hallucinatory freak-outs and loosening grip on reality—and so good overall—that it probably warrants inclusion on the List.
COMMENTS: It is very difficult to write any kind of in-depth review of this movie without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, just take my word for it that Black Swan is a truly exceptional film and you should go see it. Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid any big revelations, but will mention various plot points.
It seems the controversial Darren Aronofsky has found a way to combine the considerable and versatile talents he exhibited in his preceding films into one near-perfect thriller that’s both unsettling and emotionally gripping. He infuses his new feature with all the depravity of Requiem for a Dream, the visceral surrealism of Pi, the visual splendor of The Fountain, and the grounded character of The Wrestler, while of course adding some beautiful dance sequences and a sapphic fantasy. His camera moves with the dancers as they bound across the stage, offering a volatile but accessible glimpse at a live art form and throwing in enough technical tricks to keep any camera geek guessing.
Nina is a quiet, innocent young woman—an obvious product of her coddling, controlling mother—and her quest for perfection in dance leads her to attempt a complete personality overhaul. To play the Black Swan role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” she must release the dark, confident, seductive force within her that’s been fighting to break out. This duality within her character is frequently hinted at throughout the film through use of mirrors, sex, and hallucination woven so seamlessly with reality that the viewer is frequently unsure what is real—as is Nina herself. The constant mind games Aronofsky plays with his audience—along with Natalie Portman’s dedicated performance—make for a captivating, tense experience. I was so engaged and so anxious during this movie I felt myself physically relax about twenty minutes after it ended, though mentally I still felt shaken.
A testament to the great struggles inherent to any artistic expression, Black Swan is an intense and passionate film. Every sound is acutely felt, every strange vision strikes a cord. At times things get as visceral as Cronenberg‘s body horrors. The horror is derived from how little we really know about anything outside of Nina’s own experience, and how unsure we are about how much worse it’s going to get. Everyone around her presumably leads a fairly normal, expected life (well, everyone except Winona Ryder’s tragic, boozy ex-dancer Beth), but we are rarely able to see outside of Nina’s self-constructed dual prison of home and studio, which is inflated in her own head. Indeed, the few times we are reminded of the outside world offer welcome comedic breaks to somewhat ease the ever-building tension.
All of Aronofsky’s stylistic flourishes and subtly terrifying images are tempered by several truly impressive performances. Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation, and exhilaration. Mila Kunis is an excellent foil, physically mirroring the shy protagonist while exuding the sexuality and abandon Nina strives for. Vincent Cassell is a superb jackass, channeling George Balanchine in his romantic, tyrannical choreographer Thomas Leroy, and Barbara Hershey is appropriately sympathetic and creepy as Nina’s obsessive mother Erica.
From the very beginning Black Swan reaches out and grabs its audience, never letting its grip slip until well after the credits roll. At times it may be hard to watch, but you’ll never want to look away, and what you see will certainly stick with you. And the combination of backstage ballet drama, pulp-thriller gore, and hallucinatory allegory actually is pretty weird.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times