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Film Review: Black Swan

Black Swan (2010; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky has had it with these motherfucking swans on this motherfucking lake.

I won an Oscar for having the thespianic audacity to wear these contacts.

And so, he makes a bold, grand, viscerally beautiful film about artistry as madness and madness as artistry, portraying ballet, so superficially delicate and pretty, as a sadomasochistic pratice of unnatural self-mutilation. He melds elements of Polanski, Kubrick, and Cronenberg into a rabbit-hole psychological thriller with none of the comforting rule-based delineations of, say, a Chris Nolan film. Everything you see here, from the most elegant pirouette to the raunchiest sex act, is simultaneously immediate and detached, arousing as it is off-putting. Up to the brassy grandeur of its final frames, this is a unique cinematic experience; it makes ballet accessible and corporeal, and then corkscrews it stubbornly into the inescapably bizarre just when we’re feeling like we’re on his preferred wavelength at last.

Natalie Portman shoulders the weight of the bizarre with her always-curious mix of outward fragility and terrifying, blazing inner core of commitment. Raised and sheltered as a living wind-up ballerina by her smothering, failed-painter mother (an intermittently creepy Barbara Hershey), she’s surrounded by cute pink tokens of girlhood and, of course, a wind-up ballerina music box (hardly the only metaphor here that’s delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer). Her gradual break with this lacy cloister also involves an almost imperceptible break with sanity, although Aronofsky is deeply cagey about what’s actually happening and what’s only in Nina’s head (sometimes straining credulity in the process, but then it’s all metaphor anyway). There’s a Smeagol/Gollum effect to Portman here, as she shows us her good-girl self struggling to assert itself but inevitably losing its grip to something more sinister and uncontrollable.

Considering that the surrounding characters are meant to act upon Nina and represent her anxieties more than they’re meant to simply be, the supporting cast does solid enough work. The always-superb Vincent Cassel is in hyper-Gallic mode (as if he has any other gear) as Nina’s manipulating superior at the ballet company, steadfastly refusing to separate artistry from sexuality, on and off the stage. Mila Kunis makes me think that I must have missed some key evolution of her career, because her primal, free-spirited Lily is miles from That 70s Show, for sure. And Winona Ryder continues to hint at a surprise late rennaissance with her embrace of the deep, dark end of a prima ballerina’s journey.

Even if Nina Sayers’ dark descent (or is it a silver-lined ascent?) follows a fairly set arc, Aronofsky delights in laying down unsettling spikes along the path. You probably think you know where it’s going, and you’re probably right, but prepare to be shaken a little by the landscape on the way.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. July 25, 2014 at 2:58 pm
  2. July 26, 2015 at 8:45 am

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