December 24, 2010 -- Director Darren Aronofsky is perhaps the most talented and daring director around when it comes to making art films. His latest, Black Swan, turns out to be another daring and challenging film, revisiting the themes of madness and genius he explored in one of his earliest films, “Pi.” This film also bears a vague resemblance to the great musical film “Amadeus” in that is about envy, jealousy and rivalry. Most of all, though, this is a pure psychological drama.
I'm not a big fan of psychological dramas, and this one has some failings that are typical of the genre. It also has the inherent weakness of a story lacking a strong villain. The story is told from the point of view of professional ballet dancer Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman of “The Other Boleyn Girl”), an emotionally fragile ballet dancer competing for the lead role, the Swan Queen, in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. Nina is perfect for the role of the White Swan, a woman who is magically turned into a swan. The white swan falls in love with a prince, who is seduced by her evil twin, the black swan. In despair, the white swan commits suicide. The problem is, Nina must play both the white and black swans. She isn't well suited emotionally to play the black swan. A competing ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis of “Date Night”) has the sensuality and darkness to play the black swan. In the rivalry between the two dancers, Nina develops her own dark side, but at the same time, loses her grip on reality.
Nina isn't helped by her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey of “Lantana”) who is as obsessive about Nina getting this role as Nina is. She exerts suffocating control over Nina and doesn't seem all that tightly wrapped herself. As Nina's dark side begins to emerge, she openly defies her mother for the first time and develops a strained friendship with Lily. She goes on a bender with Lily and takes a mood altering drug, the last thing she needs. When she wakes up late for rehearsal the next day, she finds Lily practicing the Swan Queen role in her place. Nina has won the role for herself, but that is the least of her worries, as she begins to hallucinate more often. Mysterious scratches appear on her back and she experiences events that never happened. All this leads up to the shattering opening night performance of Swan Lake.
Since Nina is hallucinating so often, she loses the ability to tell what is real and what is not. The problem is, so does the audience. The question of what is real becomes a dilemma, like that found in another of this year's leading films, “Inception,” only this time there are no rules, anything goes. There is no spinning top or “kick” to guide you back to the waking world. Life itself has become a nightmare for Nina. In one amazing scene Nina morphs into a sort of black swan-human hybrid on stage. “I felt it,” she says afterward, “It was perfect.” She had literally transformed herself into the black swan, but had lost herself in the process. It doesn't help that the director of the opera, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel of “Eastern Promises”) is a Svengali character who uses seduction, bullying and judicious praise to manipulate Nina's personality to bring out the black swan in her.
Nina is being pulled in many directions by people who all want something of her. But the strongest pull of all is her own ambition, her own obsession to become the black swan. The price for her quest for perfection is very high. A mere viewer cannot know everything that happens in this movie because reality and illusion are presented in exactly the same way at times. The ending of the film can be interpreted in different ways. I prefer to interpret it my own way and you can interpret it your own way. Natalie Portman does her best with this role, but I don't believe she really has the emotional range for it. Mila Kunis, however, is perfect for her role as the black swan character. Vincent Cassel is also very good. It is good to see the talented Barbara Hershey back in a big movie like this. The last movie she was in that had this big of an impact was “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988. It is also good to see Winona Ryder back again in a big film like this, she plays the tragic role of prima ballerina Beth Macintyre, who is forced out of the opera company. This film rates a B.
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