Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Swan (2010) Theatrical Review

Note: Since this is the first film review I've ever written I'll try to keep it concise and ignore my inherent inclination toward rambling, but no promises.

I had high, probably unrealistically high, expectations for Black Swan and yet am happy to announce that not only was I completely floored by the film, but as of right now it's my favorite of 2010. For those of you not keen to Darren Aronofsky's filmography, the man likes flawed characters often plagued by obsession, usually to the detriment of the film's protagonist and those around him or her. You can see this theme repeated throughout his entire career - Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan - there's always some level of fixation touched upon. Of course simply stating that Aronofsky has an obsession with obsession is painting a picture with some fairly broad strokes.  His films also deal with identity, nostalgia, and desperation to name a few of his other favorite motifs. While Black Swan was obviously developed in Aronofsky's wheelhouse, it's clear that as an artist he's continuing to mature and try new things. In addition to being a brilliant character study, the film also happens to be a fantastic art house horror flick that not only challenges your mind, but also your nerves.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
The less said about the film's plot the better as I tend to think movies, specifically horror films, are much more enjoyable to watch without knowing the entire plot and all of the characters involved.  But to briefly summarize the premise: Black Swan is the story of a ballerina, Nina Sayer, wonderfully played by Natalie Portman, who, when the possibility of attaining her life's dream of dancing the lead in Swan Lake, must learn to not only perform the role of the White Swan, but also the Black Swan.  The White Swan is innocent and graceful, something Nina has no problem with, while the Black Swan must be danced with reckless abandon and sensuality, something Nina journeys to find within herself, yielding some rather horrifying results.

The film starts off with a bang as we peek inside the mind of Nina and become intimately, often uncomfortably, familiar with her aspirations to be the perfect dancer.  To say this film is frighteningly beautiful is an understatement.  Nina moves with graceful refinement from frame to frame, but it quickly becomes clear, due to not only the outward pressures in her life, namely a mother who is both bitter and devoted to her daughter and a ballet director that gleefully manipulates his dancers' emotions, but also her internal struggle as she attempts to tap into the darker side of her psyche, that she is in fact quite unhinged.

Von Rothbart the evil sorcerer
There's a lot to love about Black Swan and I mean A LOT. The film has often been described as Repulsion meets The Red Shoes (both from the Criterion Collection by the way) and it's a rather fitting description, although I think it goes without saying that the Black Swan is an entirely new beast.  Natalie Portman completely transforms herself in the lead role, much like Catherine Deneuve in the aforementioned Repulsion, adopting a mousy voice and a meek demeanor as we witness her character's metamorphosis; Portman wholly becomes Nina.  Coupled with the rigorous months of ballet training she completed to prepare for this film, I'll be very upset if she isn't at least nominated for an Oscar.  That goes for all of the performances, Mila Kunis as the competitive ballerina, Vincent Cassel as the exacting director, and Barbara Hershey as perhaps the film's most frightening character, Nina's mom, all deserve praise (and awards) for their wonderful portrayals.

Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy works with Nina Sayers
And the cinematography, my god the cinematography; this film is absolutely gorgeous.  There were several shots during the Swan Lake rehearsals that boggled my mind.  The camera would be focused on Nina, slowly revolving around her, while rows and rows of dancers would weave in an out of the camera's line of sight, somehow just narrowly avoiding what I imagine to be a quite dexterous camera operator.  Darren Arofnosky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique take ballet, something that is normally treated with elegance and grandeur, and made it gritty and personal without compromising the film's beauty.  The CG effects work in Black Swan also add to the insanity developed by Arofnosky and company by creating some very gory and very stirring imagery, though there was one shot that looked less than perfect (which I will address below).  As previously mentioned, while there are certainly aspects of the film that scream art house drama, this film would make Cronenberg proud with some of the more grotesque and horrific scenes.

The only real complaint I have about the film was a scene which takes place in a hospital near the end of the film.  It was frightening, it was gory (both things I love), but some of the visual effects looked fake and had me a bit worried about the ending.  Ultimately, this was a very shallow complaint and didn't affect my admiration and infatuation for the film in any way, but still surprised me given the amount of work that clearly went into the picture.  Who knows, maybe when I see this on Blu-ray (and I WILL be buying this on Blu-ray) I'll find that I was completely mistaken.

Ultimately, Black Swan is a masterpiece, which I think many will remember whenever thinking back to 2010, a year that hasn't given us very many great films.  The film is sure to divide audiences (something more films should strive to do), but will definitely pack a punch no matter how you feel about the movie.  It is still in limited release but is sure to be coming to a theater near you soon.  When it does, run, don't walk to the nearest screening.  It'll be well worth your time.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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