Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review - Black Swan

To Nina, ballet and dance are everything. They consume her. When the opportunity to play the lead in a new rendition of Swan Lake opens up Nina makes it her goal to land the part. Nina must learn to balance both sides of the Swan Queen. She must personify innocence and grace as the White Swan and guile and sensuality of the Black Swan. In her pursuit of perfection for the role Nina finds herself in a downward spiral of rivalry, control and perception.

It is becoming clear that director Darren Aronofsky is well suited in the darker portions of our minds. Nearly all of his films leading up to "Black Swan" have focused on the muddier aspects of our psyche as well as the more somber traits of human beings. Aronofsky's latest film is no different, but what sets it apart from the others, is that he has jumped genres and delivered a psychological horror.

Within the pursuit of perfection lies ability to drive a person insane and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" is a mind bending peering into one person's absolute consumption of trying to personify perfection. The horror takes the audience through Nina's downward spiral as she is consumed by paranoia leading up to her opening night performance. Watching the events unfold is only half of the experience because Aronofsky and the entire cast are able to sweep you right into all of the emotion, sexuality, fear and doubt that is created within the 108 minute film.

I wanted to take a moment out of reviewing the film itself and focus on the belief that "Black Swan" is very much a Horror movie. It is without question that the film is very much a dark Drama. It is also without question that the film is a Thriller. That said, the depths the film takes you through with Nina along with the subconscious and paranoia elements make it not just a Thriller, but a Horror. Much like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a horror movie, Black Swan is a horror movie. Black Swan may not feature as much horrific and brutal imagery as The Shining but it certainly covers the sense same of fear and paranoia.

Looking to specifics in what propels 'Swan' into the Horror genre is the relationship between Nina and her mother. Much like in the ballet Swan Lake, the Queen is over-protective of the Swan Queen, Nina's mother is nightmarish and aggressive in her preventive nature. She borderlines as a psychopath in the way she treats her daughter. Aronofsky spends just enough time to plant the seed of dementia into the audience's mind about the mother giving little hints along the course of the tale allowing those seeds to sprout. It would be a sin to spend this much time on the mother and not mention Barbara Hershey. She is electric as Erica Sayers. Every scene she is in leaves the viewer balancing on a tightrope of suspense. There is no telling what emotion will come out. From joy to anger to depression and compassion, Hershey jumps between them all without the batting of an eye.

"Black Swan" doesn't just have one thing that was done extremely well, but instead it is all around polished. Every facet of the film is precise, stunning and most of all lasting. Clint Mansell's score, Matthew Libatique's cinematography, Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin's script, Andrew Weisblum's editing and Darren Aronofsky's direction all combine to make a resounding cinematic experience. An experience that had me holding my breath in awe of the events unfolding.

All of the work behind the camera is expert, but so to is the work done in front of the cameras. I've previously mentioned Hershey's electric performance but everyone throughout the cast is top notch. Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis both pull off luring performances that help to submerse the audience in Nina's pursuit towards perfection. Kunis I was the most taken by because previously she had not shown anything more than sex appeal on screen. Kunis showed true ability in the role of Lily. She still showcases a ton of sex appeal, but without the ability and believability, her performance would have pulled me quickly out of the horror. Winona Ryder plays Beth Macintyre and while it is a very brief performance, it is nonetheless staggering. Ryder's character represents the aged version of what Nina could become and seeing the mirroring, albeit brief, is eye-opening.

The heart of the film is Natalie Portman and her blindsiding performance as Nina Sayers. Portman will easily warrant an Academy Award nomination for her stunning performance but she should also take home the prize. Portman is extraordinary and dare I say perfect. Portman nails every avenue of the performance. She is fragile and innocent, yet she is demented and sensual. Her repeated transformation throughout the film is both upsetting and sublime. The paranoia, passion and persistence of Nina bleeds through Portman making the star who has had a number of recognizable roles completely invisible.

More than just mere mention must be made of cinematography by Matthew Libatique. The framing throughout the film is stupendous. A majority of "Black Swan" takes place within a dance studio and upon the stage. The studio for one is filled with mirrors and Libatique's ability to capture the performances is remarkable. I'm curious to know how much if any mirrored reflections were edited out in post. From the look of the film, it came across seamless. It was as if their was a invisible camera filming. Looking at the stage performance, something that the viewer is used to seeing from a fixed line of sight, Aronofsky and Libatique do a heart-pounding job of bringing the audience into the performances on stage.

"Black Swan" revolves around ballet leaving music as a substantial aspect to the film. I've never been the biggest fan of Swan Lake or ballet for that matter but Clint Mansell's score is energizing, melodic and twisted. It does a masterly job of bringing themes in and out from the music of Swan Lake while also toeing the line between dementia and sanity. Like any great score, it adds another layer to an already brilliant film. It leaves a lasting effect on the audience while never becoming draining.

"Black Swan" overall blew me away. It is my favorite Darren Aronofsky film to date as well as the best performance I've seen Natalie Portman deliver. She sure is growing into a damn fine actress. To think back to her in Beautiful Girls as a simple teen muse and now she has grown into a true leading lady. 'Swan' is immediately addicting. After my initial viewing I was ready for a second helping. I've since been constantly thinking about seeing it again and again. It is a film I can't wait to own so that I will be able to completely dissect its brilliance, beauty and terror.