“Black Swan” Review
For a thriller about a ballerina having a nervous breakdown, I don’t think it’s possible for “Black Swan” to have accumulated higher expectations prior to its release. Not even counting the immense cult following that a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky carries with him in his pocket. I’ve been watching the trailer constantly since summer and I can’t seem to turn on the web or even in the grocery store without a glimpse of this film’s publicity. With this much wood fueling the fire, the less of a net it has to work with, and sadly, the film falls a bit short of what it was originally aiming for.
Don’t get me wrong. The film is very good. Aronofsky taps some of the brilliance invoked by Argento, Cronenberg and even Hitchcock to create event of psychosexual madness to add to his to his, for the most part, stellar repetoire. The film uses nearly every available facet of filmmaking to create levels of shock and paranoia to frazzling heights.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a young woman who has committed her body, mind and soul completely to the art of ballet dance. Her entire life has become a whirlwind of pressure from her overbearing mother (which is an understatement), her director, for whom she has a confused sexual disposition towards, and an always lurking understudy, for whom we won’t even get into sexual discussion with. However, her greatest opposition may lie in a darker place, one that may very well be unconquerable.
If there is one theme that maverick director Darren Aronofsky has loved to document, it would be that of obssession. No matter how elaborate the stories get or layered his characters become, the driving force behind them always comes in the form of almost rabid fixation of both the tangible and sometimes the intangible, as well. Here, that topic is brought to new depths, perhaps too deep for its own good. The director composes his film much like the violent crescendo of a classical symphony, using Tchaikovsky’s own themes blended with Clint Mansell’s incredible score to raise each scene to be a bit more intense than the last, straight up to the spectacle that is the final note.
The cast is well chosen. Vincent Cassel provides the perfect blend of bravado mixed with sheer creepiness in his unorthodox methods of both teaching and seducing the main character. Barbara Hershey is the perfect embodiment of Portman’s mother, both in appearance and ability, even if at times her domineering manner can feel a bit forced by the situation. Mila Kunis also holds her own as Portman’s dark apprentice, though never really provides a standout scene for which she can compete with the real star of the film.
That aforementioned ray of light is the incomparable Natalie Portman. Her Nina Sayers IS the film, and the reason to go see it, if there be no other. Portman spent nearly a year of her life losing weight, training in the art of ballet, and doing whatever else was in her power to become this role. And even if her physical transformation wasn’t a standout factor, her emotions are spot on in every single moment that she’s on camera. In a scene near the end when a moment of clarity and revelation reaches her during her opening night and she works to cover her rolling tears with snow-white make-up, we literally see her become not only a great actress, but one of the greatest of our time. The Best Actress field is very strong this year, but I would have no doubt that she could bring home the gold, nor have a problem with it, either.
Aronofsky uses an immense amount of mis en scene to enhance the levels of suspense and paranoia in his film. The alternating tones of black and white help emphasize the duality of Portman’s character, and the placement of mirrors in moments of crisis and fear help illustrate her own self-destruction. Massive kudos to Matthew Libateque on the most gorgeous cinematography of Aronofsky’s career. The close-ups on Portman’s feet as they patter and skip across the studio floor are some of the most real and compelling moments of the film. The following-shot is also becoming a signature trademark of Aronofsky’s style.
Yet, alas, the second shoe had to drop at some point. The film, while always gripping, just gets out of hand, especially in the third act. Aronofsky really can’t decide what type of film he’s trying to create. The character-study is a potent selling-point for the audience to hold on to. However, the director keeps making attempts at B-movie horror to change the pace up with using jump-scares and fake-outs. When these elements begin to appear, they seem out of place, and when they accelerate, they become overwhelming, just as the film does. And while the ending note is one of metaphorical triumph for the director and his film, this viewer wishes that the final jog to the finish didn’t have to be quite so draining.
GRADES: B+ * * * * / * * * * * 8.2 / 10.0