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At The Picture Show
February 2011

A swan is born

Aronofsky's savagely funny, macabre balancing act pays off in 'Black Swan'

Black Swan
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder and Ksenia Solo
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
(out of four)

No one without a sense of humor will be able to appreciate Black Swan the way it demands to be appreciated. It's a brilliant psychological thriller, yes, but beyond that lies a scathing black comedy.

Perhaps that's because the film draws its elements from old-fashioned melodrama and horror - two genres which by their vary nature border on the absurd. Director Darren Aronofsky finds that absurdity and exploits it to grand effect, crafting a brutal satire and dressing it up as a gritty, hyper-stylized bit of cinematic insanity.

Black Swan is framed in the context of the classic Swan Lake - the ballet for which Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) lands the lead role - with the traditional exploration of the main character's duality taking center stage as the dark and light sides of her soul grapple for possession.

But that much we knew already, didn't we? What heightens the effect is the way the film juxtaposes that against the old A Star is Born Hollywood prototype. The backstage drama. All the ingredients are there - the oppressive, overbearing "showbiz mom" (Barbara Hershey), the catty backstage rivalries, the sexually menacing and manipulative (male) director, the youthful ingenue taking the place of the seasoned veteran whose time has come and gone . . . it's all there, and the filmmakers have put those elements in place very carefully.

All together, they have a rather wicked bite - to the extent that I'm afraid some people won't realize just how funny the film's over-the-top-ness is, and is meant to be.

Key to all of this is the way the film, in examining the very idea of performance, perverts the narcissism inherent to that (and to showbiz itself) - with Nina's entire sense of identity tied inexorably to the roles she plays. That's common enough material for movies, I suppose. But in this case, Aronosky and his writers take such immense pleasure in playing with all the differing tones and emotional shifts that make up a performance - and, by proxy, the performer - that it makes the experience all the more visceral and all the more entertaining.

Naturally, that dynamic is entirely dependent on the performers themselves - and those in Black Swan more than carry their weight. From Portman's opening moments on screen, I was reminded of Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's Repulsion - the soft, childlike voice, the dazed and confused way she treats her surroundings. As personified by Portman, Nina is borderline virginal and almost helplessly caught in a state of arrested development. In life, too eager to please her doting (and, yes, psychotic) mother and too easily docile; on stage, too encumbered by the idea of "perfection" to actually let herself be overcome by anything remotely passionate or primal.

It's that last issue that presents such a problem for Nina in her desire to land the role of the Swan Queen. The director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), insists she's too focused on perfection to really let herself go and become the Black Swan. The White Swan? She's a natural. But only when Nina bites him when he kisses her does he finally see that dark side shining through, put his skepticism aside and give her the role.

Portman has long been the Oscar favorite for Best Actress - and deservedly so. The greatness of her performance dawns on us, I believe, only gradually - namely in the film's final act, when there is such a dramatic shift in her countenance, her facial expressions, her eyes, her body language that it begins to hit us exactly how effectively she has gotten under our skin. In one grand climactic sequence, the implications of her actions, behavior and emotional state of mind come pouring out. It's an exceptional piece of work by Portman and makes for a stunning and theatrical finale.

I first saw the film with a close friend, who during most of the screening was thinking much the same thing I was: "This is great and all . . . but there's no way Aronofsky pulls this off . . . right? No way."

And then, lo and behold, he pulls it off. There have been so many films that have mined this material - reality vs. fantasy, sanity vs. psychosis - that endings and revelations are too often disappointing, almost by default. It's tough to pull off. But this one concludes about as perfectly as it possibly could.

With Black Swan, Aronofsky continues his preoccupation with the extremes of human behavior - the obsessions that border on madness, the lengths to which people will go to keep chasing whatever it is they're chasing. People (including Aronofsky himself) have rightly compared it to his last film, The Wrestler, in the way the protagonists use their bodies as a means of both expression and destruction. Or more specifically, as the only means of expression of which the characters are fully capable.

But I'd say the parallels go beyond that, reaching back through his entire filmography. What his characters go through feels practically biblical at times, such is their level of obsession and/or compulsion. From Pi to Requiem for a Dream to The Fountain to The Wrestler and now Black Swan, how many recent characters have put themselves through such physical and mental anguish?

Impressively enough, despite Aronofsky's own recurring thematic obsessions, he has managed to reinvent himself as a filmmaker each and every time out. He does so again in Black Swan. His stylistic choices this time around lend the film an air of poetic grace one moment and operatic chaos the next, creating the sort of psycho-comic funhouse mirror of a movie that only the rarest of filmmakers could pull off.

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