Friday, December 17, 2010

Ballet mixes with psychotic terror in edgy 'Black Swan'

By Steve Crum

It takes only 20 minutes into Black Swan for its familiarity to surface. Somewhere we have seen this troubled central character, Nina, before. Her paranoid, driven personality has been a fascinating, and always disturbing, fixture in a number of motion pictures. For one, Humphrey Bogart’s Fred. C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre comes to mind. But Black Swan really has the stylized, frenetic look and feel of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, in particular. Like The Tenant, Black Swan digs under one’s skin in creepy ways.

Aptly called a “psycho, sexual thriller” by National Public Radio, Black Swan is a story told from the Nina’s point of view. Knowing this before seeing the movie is a spoiler edge, so I apologize. Realize, however, it is nearly impossible to critique the film without this reference tab. Here we have Nina, brilliantly played by Natalie Portman in an Oscar worthy performance. Portman succeeds in both credibly acting the tortured, tormented ballerina, as well as playing out the dancing sequences quite incredibly. Portman obviously desired this part to the max through six months of ballet training so she would look the part without using a double. It was worth it. Black Swan is the high point of Portman’s acting career thus far.

As relentlessly as Portman  trained for her role, her Nina Sayers character is even more obsessed with dance perfectionism. Director Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, released a year ago, dealt with a similar theme of an athlete (a wrestler) driven to perfection at risk of body and mind. Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin fashioned Black Swan around a ballerina on the verge of stardom via her casting as the lead in Swan Lake.

She is one of two understudies being considered to replace reluctantly outgoing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) in the upcoming Swan Lake production. As if Nina herself is not already driven over the proverbial top in her strive, she has to deal with both the dance director’s incessant criticisms regarding her perceived faults and her stage mother’s overindulgence in her life and career in the apartment they share. Her mother Erica is played with cold reserve by Barbara Hershey, who at first glance resembles Geraldine Chaplin. Added to these pressures, along with Nina’s self doubts and stresses, is Nina’s understudy rival, Lily (Mila Kunis).

It is apropos that Swan Lake is the featured ballet since it traditionally features the prima ballerina portraying both the white and black swans, which represents Nina’s split, and corrupted, personality. “I want to be perfect,” says Nina early on. Her perfectionist desire drives the story.

The film includes images of sex acts, bloody murder, and creature transformations. But are we witnessing reality or illusion, and why? (Again, I cannot divulge too much.) Just realize the setting of Black Swan is the world of ballet, an art which explores love and death through the symbolism of music and dance. Mix in a ballerina with extreme self esteem issues, and you get a fascinating, edgy film.

GRADE: On an A to F Scale: A-

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