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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 10, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 50
Ethereal Black Swan a hallucinatory enigma
Arts & Entertainment
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Ethereal Black Swan a hallucinatory enigma

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Black Swan
Opening December 10


Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's trippy, hallucinatory, intensely sexual and eerily psychological foray into ballet, obsession, and the state of self, is a bizarre sojourn I don't feel entirely equipped to handle. It moves to its own intense rhythm, pulses to its own inner Kafkaesque beats. It defies expectation and busts convention while also embracing levels of Douglas Sirk-like melodrama I haven't seen since Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven.

As far as I'm concerned, this is all for the good. Working from a complex and multilayered script written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz (who also came up with the story), and John McLaughlin, Aronofsky continues to dive into the world of the human psyche in ways that are different and engaging. Whether he's dealing with genius (Pi), drug abuse (Requiem for a Dream), love lost and potentially found (The Fountain), or aging dreams of athletic glory long gone (The Wrestler), everything does come from a place of deep commitment and internal strife. In short, no matter what the subject matter, no matter what the setting, character comes first, and for all his visual flourish and flamboyance, job one is making his protagonists pop off the screen in a way that resonates and emotionally connects.

Which is exactly the case here. As ferociously and fearlessly portrayed by Natalie Portman, dancer Nina Sayers is just the kind of driven, idiosyncratic individual perfectly suited to the Aronofsky canon. This is a woman whose own determination and drive, coupled by her own insecurities and inability to release her emotional and sexual frustrations thanks to a smothering mother (a superb Barbara Hershey), is leading her dangerously close to psychosis and ruin. It is a character that is at once instantly recognizable while at the same time distant and toxic. She is a human chameleon walking along a psychological precipice of her own making, and whether or not she'll ultimately lose her balance and fall is completely dependent upon whether she allows herself to shed inhibitions and give herself completely over to the music and to the ballet.

The plot itself is fairly basic. Nina is given the opportunity to portray the lead in her company's season-opening production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake when artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is too old far the part. While he knows Nina is perfect for the White Swan, he is worried she will be unable to give into the inherently sexual nature of the Black Swan, leaving the production unbalanced. Hedging his bets, he appoints company newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) as her alternate, creating a sort of unintentional friction which will have profound implications.

But that's only the half of it. Nina is obsessed with perfection, but thanks to an oppressive home life and an inability to relax or to let herself go, she's having trouble getting to where she needs to be to make the role a success. She pushes herself harder and harder. She goes deeper than she ever knew possible, coming dangerously close to transforming herself into the tragic doppelganger figures at the heart of Tchaikovsky's ballet.

The whole thing plays a little bit like The Red Shoes on acid, mixed with a healthy dose of Fight Club. It takes the art of performance for public consumption to a whole new level, asking whether or not artists (dancers here, but we could be talking about just about anything) must risk psychological torment and death in order to achieve perfection. It takes a character who a viewer instantly understands and relates to and slowly transforms her into something dark, dangerous, and devastating, going to a place of Freudian pathos that had me shivering in cold desolation by the time it was over.

Portman is extraordinary. She takes on this challenging role and does wonders with it. She enters an emotional minefield so complex and intricately layered I almost started to wonder how she came through the filming intact. The way she builds this character - the way she finds every one of Ninas nooks and crannies and fills them with something honest and real - held me spellbound. From start to finish, she owns the screen, doing things I never thought her capable of (this from someone who considers themselves a big Portman fan), her final moments onscreen containing glances, looks, and utterances I'll be thinking about and mulling over for many years to come.

The genius behind much of what Aronofsky has accomplished is undeniable. From the way the film is shot to how it is scored to the way that it is edited to how the costumes are designed to the staging of the ballet itself, everything borders on brilliance. And yet, part of me still feels distant from this. There is a slight visceral disconnect, something keeping me at arm's length and stopping me from embracing the picture as fully as I'd like.

Do not misunderstand. This is a sensational piece of work, containing what I think is - male or female - the performance of the year. It is a movie I cannot wait to see again, and the longer I ruminate on it, the more positive I am this is some sort of psycho-sexual new-age ballerina masterpiece, close to being on par with The Red Shoes itself. It took me somewhere different and new, yet did so by using cinematic constructs that are as old as the art form itself. Aronofsky has challenged me, moved me, and, yes, perplexed me, making Black Swan an ethereal and dreamlike enigma I can't wait to take a look at and devour again.

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