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Black Swan
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Insanity Plies"
5 stars

“Black Swan” is a film that tells the story of a talented artist who attempts to achieve perfection in her particular field of expertise and manages to pull it off, though the pressures she puts herself under wind up extolling enormous physical and psychological costs in the end. Ironically, it is a film made by a talented artist attempting to achieve perfection in his particular field of expertise and he has somehow managed to pull off the task with no apparent physical or emotional toll. That artist is filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, whose first four features--“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain” and “The Wrestler”--have been among the most fascinating and original films to come along over the last few years. And yet, as good as filmography has been so far to date, he has managed to top himself with “Black Swan,” a dazzling experience in which he combines his prodigious directorial skills with an equally bold and impressive turn before the cameras by lead actress Natalie Portman into an audacious, terrifying and compulsive watchable piece of pure cinema that is both his finest work to date and one of the very best films of the year.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer at a prestigious New York ballet company who is so completely obsessed with perfecting her craft that every other aspect of her life appears to have been put on the wayside--she still lives in a small apartment with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who, as she never fails to remind Nina, had to give up her career when she became pregnant, her stuffed animal-laden bedroom would seem more appropriate for a young child and when she is asked about her sex life or whether she has ever even had a boyfriend, her responses are anything but convincing. As the story opens, the new season is about to begin and the company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) makes two surprising announcements. The first is that the first program of the season will be a production of the immortal “Swan Lake.” The second is that the show will not star the group’s lead ballerina, aging diva Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) and that the lead role is up for grabs. On the surface, Nina would seem to be a shoo-in for the part with her combination of technical precision and her aura of innocence being a perfect fit for the role of the pure and virginal White Swan. The trouble is that the role also calls for the dancer to perform the part of the darker and more overtly sensual Black Swan as well and no matter how hard she tries, Nina is unable to loosen up enough to convincingly represent those aspects--in frustration, Thomas orders her to go home and masturbate--a concept that seems utterly alien to her--in the hopes that will release her personal and professional tensions.

Although this homework assignment ends fairly badly, Nina winds up winning the role after all, a move that ironically causes most of her fellow dancers to suspect that she is sleeping with Thomas and which literally sends Beth running into traffic. As Nina becomes more and more consumed with preparing for the role, punishing her body in the process, and trying to properly embody the Black Swan, she becomes increasingly intrigued and obsessed with Lily (Mila Kunis), the company’s new dancer and someone who, while lacking the precision and discipline of someone like Nina, effortlessly embodies all the qualities of the Black Swan. Over her mother’s objections, Nina begins a friendship with Lily and allows the new girl to take her out for a wild night of drink, drugs and perhaps something more that finally allows her to tap into her darker side. As the rehearsals progress, however, Nina’s already fragile mental state begins to disintegrate even further and she become convinced that Lily means to replace her in just the same way that she replaced Beth, a feeling that only intensifies when Lily is named Nina’s understudy. Everything culminates in the opening night performance and without giving anything away, let me simply say that the audience members certainly get their moneys worth and then some.

Taken at face value, the screenplay for “Black Swan” may strike some viewers as an overheated stew consisting of elements taken from such diverse sources as “The Red Shoes,” “Repulsion,” “Carrie,” “Suspiria,” “Mulholland Dr.” and any number of titles from the filmography of David Cronenberg. However, what might have come across as lurid nonsense in the hands of a lesser filmmaker works beautifully here because of Aronofsky’s masterful direction. At first, he treats the film almost like a documentary in the way that he focuses on the often gruesome physical toll that ballet dancers put themselves through while still trying to look graceful--this section of the film may remind some viewers of Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” in the way that it unflinchingly depicts the pain that some performers endure in the name of entertainment. As the film progresses and Nina’s mental state begins to disintegrate, Aronofsky shifts the focus so that we are seeing everything through her increasingly fractured perspective in such a subtle and engrossing manner that most viewers may not even realize it for a while. This is Aronofksy in his controlled White Swan mode but when it comes time for him to shift into becoming the Black Swan, he does so brilliantly with a final sequence that is a stunningly go-for-baroque masterpiece of blood, sweat, tears, terror, tragedy and triumph that is one of the most astonishing sustained bursts of filmmaking that I can recall seeing--even the celebrated montage that Aronofsky used to top off his “Requiem for a Dream” pales in comparison to the climax he gives us here. This is quite simply the work of a great filmmaker performing at the peak of his powers and he pulls it off so effortlessly that after it is all over, you may find yourself thinking that there may be nothing that he can’t do behind a camera, even if his next film is scheduled to be the next “X-Men” boondoggle.

It would be easy to simply consider “Black Swan” to be a directorial triumph and leave it at that but to do so would do a great disservice to the other key element to the film’s success--the extraordinary central performance turned in by Natalie Portman. Although she is generally regarded as one of the best young American actresses working today, she is one of those whose ability to truly shine as a performer is largely dependent on the quality of the material she is working with--she doesn’t really have the ability to overcome weak writing and can sometimes seem bored and listless on the screen as a result (as anyone who saw the last three “Star Wars” movies can attest). Here, she has been given a strong screenplay and a complex character to play with and she has responded with a physically and emotionally grueling performance that is far and away her best work to date. Face it, if we don’t accept Nina as a character and allow ourselves to slowly get sucked into her increasingly warped world, the entire movie is dead in the water but she capture every aspect of Nina, from her frigid formality in the early going to her increasingly bizarre behavior later on, with pinpoint precision. This is just one of the very best performances of the year--this truly is one for the ages. Portman is also lucky in that she has a surprisingly strong supporting cast backing her up as well. Although some people may still think of Mila Kunis as the dim bulb beauty from “That 70’s Show,” those preconceptions are easily shattered by her sexy and edgy turn as Nina’s frenemy. Vincent Cassel is wonderfully oily as the sleazy artistic director who knows that he is a genius and uses that knowledge as a license to treat everyone around him badly without the slightest regard for their feelings. Barbara Hershey, who really needs to appear in more movies, is splendid as a mother figure so monstrous that she gives Piper Laurie in “Carrie” a run for the money. And while her appearance is limited to only a couple of scenes, Winona Ryder makes such a strong impression as the cast-aside diva that one can only hope that this will jump-start her long-awaited comeback.

Because it deals with primal emotions in such a bold and blatantly melodramatic manner, there will be some people who will find “Black Swan” to be either too violent or too ridiculous to take seriously at all--to them, it may come across as little more than the art-house version of “Burlesque.” Ignore these naysayers, for they are clearly the kind of timid moviegoers who are far more comfortable with the prefabricated coziness of genteel Oscar bait like “The King’s Speech” than with something that tries to shake them up. On the other hand, if you like a movie that stakes out its own turf and boldly does what it sets out to do without a moment’s hesitation, then “Black Swan” is right up your alley. Whether you look at it as a dance movie, a penetrating psychological profile or as a genuinely inspired horror extravaganza, this film is a must-see.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21278&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/06/10 13:07:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 67th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 67th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2010 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2010 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell not bad but nothing special 4 stars
9/06/17 Louise OK but nothing special. Agree with Gonsalves' review. 3 stars
3/02/16 Charles Tatum Some nice visuals, but don't pretend to know what the hell it all means 2 stars
3/25/15 Robert Tschinkel Black Swan makes you question what is real, what is imaginary, Natalie Portman terrific 5 stars
7/20/12 Sean Harrison Absolute brilliant piece of film making. 5 stars
11/26/11 open to new ideas And the point of the movie is......?????? 1 stars
8/22/11 Annie G One of those films that I don’t get why everyone loves it! 2 stars
8/11/11 brian Show biz ain't for everybody. Aranofsky is THE BEST. 5 stars
6/05/11 Piz Portman carries this obviously, somewhat clunky drama that becomes less-noireish as it goes 4 stars
5/25/11 Glenn Laurence Hardy Junior pretty good...... (friend me on facebook, pwease! my pic. is Sonic. 4 stars
5/15/11 stephen nettles Outstanding on every level 5 stars
5/08/11 Apotheosis Extremely solid, Portman perfect, plays with reality 4 stars
4/27/11 gc Truly the most overrated movie ever made 2 stars
2/28/11 Captain Slog Need to watch it again to understand it 4 stars
2/11/11 millersxing we may each live a fractured and fractal existence, if not to the extreme like fragile Nina 5 stars
2/10/11 Deanna L disturbing, beautiful, intense, stays with you 5 stars
2/05/11 mr.mike I think Hitchcock would have approved. 5 stars
2/04/11 Roy Smith The best movie I've seen this year - and likely the best 2011 has to offer. 5 stars
1/28/11 Langano Good, but not great. Was expecting more from Aronofsky. 4 stars
1/19/11 Martin Very well acted and directed. Natalie Portman, amazing!! 5 stars
1/16/11 nancyn For the life of me don't get what ya'll see in this movie - thought it was just plain silly 2 stars
1/13/11 Dane Youssef As beautiful, breathtaking, daring and death-defying as any ballet. More so. REAL BALLET 5 stars
1/12/11 BoyInTheDesignerBubble The guy made PI, and hasn't let me down yet! 5 stars
1/07/11 puddleduck Would have enjoyed more story/dialogue and less clawing, scratching, bleeding flesh. 2 stars
1/02/11 Dennis A bizarre, yet amazing film. 5 stars
12/29/10 damalc best movie about ballet i've seen 4 stars
12/22/10 karamashi An excellent film. Intensely acted and made. 4 stars
12/21/10 Man out 6 Bucks Aronofsky already up there with Kubrick. Hopefully I haven't seen his best yet. 5 stars
12/10/10 Flounder It seems everything Aronofsky touches these days turns to gold. 5 stars
12/06/10 Linda incredible intense which includes both talent and intrigue 5 stars
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  03-Dec-2010 (R)
  DVD: 29-Mar-2011

  21-Jan-2011 (15)

  03-Dec-2010 (MA)
  DVD: 29-Mar-2011

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