Review: Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Every year at the Toronto film fest, there's one film I see at an industry screening that I come out of thinking I need to immediately see again, and with a real audience.

Black Swan - Aronofsky's beautiful, horrific, brilliant, devastating masterpiece - is that film this year.

On Twitter I pithily came up with a 'movie formula' description of it as Polanski's Repulsion + Powell Red Shoes, but while it stands shoulder to shoulder with those classics that description does not do Black Swan any sort of justice. It contains elements of them, as it does Argento's Suspiria as well, but Aronofsky's vision of a young ballerina's dreams becoming a nightmare is a thing of singular majesty. One of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his complete command of every one of an audience's sense that he can reach with the tools available to him. Black Swam looks gorgeous, and its visuals have a visceral, terrible impact that no puny slasher movie can possibly match, but the sound design is every bit a work of subtle, fearsome genius as well. It seems like I say this every time he makes a new movie, but this is Aronofsky's most accomplished work from a purely technical standpoint.

All that genius would have gone for naught if he didn't have a lead to match though, and Natalie Portman's Nina is just... I'm not sure I have the words. Jesus.

I have to admit, while I thought she was good, I've never thought of Portman as a truly elite actor. I didn't have that Star Wars-based pure geek love for her, and hadn't really seen her in anything that made me think she had untapped potential.

And now I know I was wrong.

Portman is insanely good, and I mean that in every conceivable positive way. At the beginning of the movie she's wound up so tight she vibrates, and as Black Swan progresses those vibrations become seismic. When the girl who's always in control of herself lets go of that control, she's got no experience in tempering what gets unleashed; the doors to her emotions are either locked shut, or flung wide open. The levels of nuance Portman brings to this role are incredible. Her face reflects every tic and tremor and thought in her increasingly fractured psyche, and given how much of the film is shot claustrophobically tight on that face, her vulnerability ends up being the best special effect Black Swan has going for it. Portman more than rises to the challenge Aronofsky gave her, and it echoes her character's own transformation and adds another layer to the metaphor. Just as Nina gets pushed beyond her limits, self-imposed and otherwise, to become worthy of the role of the Swan Queen, so too does Portman push past the limits of what she's accomplished before. I'm done with the Oscars, so I don't much care whether they bother to recognize her brilliance or not. What I do know is that this role will redefine how people see her as an actress, and will cement her spot next to the Kates (Winslet and Blanchett) as someone who I would now trust with any material, and who I would see in absolutely anything.

Portman and Aronofsky aren't the whole show, of course. Barbara Hershey is brittlely, brutally perfect as Portman's domineering mother, desperate for her daughter to have exactly the life she couldn't even as she resents that Nina gets the chances she didn't. Vincent Cassel is his usual effortlessly awesome self as the driven, slightly lecherous impressario. Mila Kunis gets a somewhat easier role as the wild girl in the company who helps open up those floodgates inside of Nina, but she knocks it out of the park and provides an absolutely necessary grounding of reality when the story calls for it. Even Winona Ryder flashes her old skills in a smaller role as the prima ballerina being shoved aside for the new blood.

But the thing most people will take away from Black Swan, aside from awe at the skill in which Aronofsky makes Nina's neuroses become flesh, is Portman's performance. She shatters herself into pieces for him and for us, then pulls herself back together and is reborn as someone new, someone stronger and scarier and more vital than ever before. And we are shattered and reborn right along with her, and the feeling is terrifying and glorious.

Terrifying, and glorious, and perfect.

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