Oscar Movie Month: "Black Swan" Review

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An Oscar-winning Natalie Portman portrays a disturbed ballerina named Nina in this 2010 psychological thriller. After landing the lead in "Swan Lake", Nina goes to desperate lengths to fill her role as both the White and Black swan. The delicate ballerina is thrown further off balance when she perceives that a girl named Lily (Mila Kunis) is more qualified for the part.
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Rating: R
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: December 17, 2010
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Genre: Drama / Mystery / Thriller

The power of ballet lies in its deceptive beauty. Beneath the floating skirts and fanciful stage makeup, dancers are athletes who put in grueling hours to perfect the art form. There is little room for error at the barre. Although most people see only the pastel pink toe shoes, a professional ballet dancer is often identifiable by her calloused feet. In "Black Swan," director Darren Aronofsky finds horror and morbidity in an unexpected place. Spooky, wild and over-the-top, this tale of a young dancer slowly losing her grip on reality is a masterful psychological thriller. Themes of perfectionism, rivalry and thwarted dreams clash with Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" ballet to create a disturbing fairy tale.

Natalie Portman walked away with an Academy Award for her intense turn as Nina. As with other Oscar winners before her, the acclaim came partially from her work off screen. Already slender, Portman dropped weight and trained relentlessly as a dancer to accurately portray the movie's tortured protagonist. On screen, Portman's prominent collar bones serve as a visual reminder of how detached Nina has become from her own body. As striking as Portman's weight loss is, though, her acting abilities are what earns her the well-deserved statuette. In a movie that deftly mixes highbrow symbolism with lowbrow melodrama, Portman's sensitive, powerful performance anchors the whole story.

Nina (Portman) anxiously nibbles grapefruit for breakfast in the apartment she shares with her artist mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). Shy and guarded, Nina has one overruling obsession in life. Her skill at dancing has earned her a spot at a renowned company in New York City, but she's still waiting to break out as a prima ballerina. Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the charismatic director of the company, is going to be casting dancers for a performance of "Swan Lake." If Nina can land the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan, she'll replace the retired Beth (Winona Ryder) as the company's shining star. 

Her quest to become the principal dancer seems to pay off when Nina lands the coveted role. Nina isn't the type to rest on her laurels, though, and Thomas isn't about to give his potential star an easy time. Nina may be flawless as the White Swan, a role that requires innocence and control. However, she struggles when it comes to the Black Swan, unable to express a dark and sensual side. When Thomas mocks her uptight nature, Nina only struggles harder. In every other aspect of her dancing career, hard work has been Nina's savior. Now, her perfectionism might be her downfall.

Tormented by her shortcomings and desperate to impress Thomas, Nina throws herself into practice. Reality starts to unravel around the edges. Nina sees strange things, including odd visions of doppelgangers that vanish as quickly as they appear. Her body seems to be falling apart around her, in ways that go beyond her punishing diet and exercise regime.

Into this increasingly unhinged landscape comes Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily is physically similar to Nina in some ways, but her personality is the exact opposite. Although a talented dancer, Lily lives life on the wild side. Thomas pointedly pits Lily and Nina against each other, chiding Nina to be more like the worldly, alluring Lily. Although Nina views the other dancer as a rival, she also seems fascinated by this alternate version of herself. While Nina has sacrificed everything for a shot at success, Lily still maintains a life outside the dance company. As the performance draws closer and Nina's anxieties mount, everything threatens to come crashing down on her. It soon becomes clear that the dark side Nina has been trying to unleash has grown beyond her control.

"Black Swan" is a visual feast, turning from beautiful to ugly in the space of a pirouette. These are images that stick in the viewer's mind, from Nina's pink, infantile nightmare of a bedroom to the shock of watching her peel her cuticle away from her finger. During a hallucinogenic scene at a night club, monstrous and distorted faces appear in the crowd, all of them belonging to characters from Nina's life. The score is beautifully suited to the film. Tchaikovsky's sweeping, resonant compositions are dramatic even when played alone. When paired with images of frantic ballerinas with blood-red eyes, the music is transcendent.

Aronofsky wisely embraces melodrama instead of running from it. Many moments blend absurd humor with disturbing shock value. For instance, there's the scene where Nina rolls over in bed to find that her mother has fallen asleep in her bedroom chair. The movie pulls off an impressive balancing act, managing to be terrifying, weird, smart and lavishly beautiful at the same time. There are multiple themes winding their way through the pleasantly overblown plot. Nina is struggling with her desire to please those around her, from the sleazy and overbearing Thomas to the mother who wants Nina to succeed for selfish reasons. Underneath the gaudy costumes, "Black Swan" is an exploration of the loss of self and the demands of society.

Ultimately, "Black Swan" succeeds because it offers a little of everything. The gross, shocking scenes are there, as is the unnerving psychological suspense. There are stunning dance performances and campy horror movie tropes. By lifting the curtain on the prim world of ballet to show a weirder, bloodier side, Aronofsky has created a truly original thriller.

Rating: 4 out of 5