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Black Swan: Denver Film Festival Review

This Black Swan review is “plot heavy,” by which I mean bordering on spoilerish. I don't think it would spoil your experience, but it's detailed enough that you deserve a warning. I have a lot to say about Black Swan...

At the New York City Ballet's first rehearsal of the season, ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that the season's first performance will be of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. He remarks something to the effect of, “I know Swan Lake has been done to death, but this will be different. More visceral.” At this point, you're deceiving yourself if you don't already know what you're in for. I'll give you a hint: He's not kidding. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan grotesquely thrusts the pain of perfection at the audience. It's what makes ballet such a compelling subject for a movie. These dancers literally destroy their bodies for art. Tearing off skin, breaking toenails, open sores. And that's just the regular everyday ballerina stuff before the really horrifying things happen toward the movie's conclusion. We can hear Leroy's voice echo in our minds, “More visceral!” Sound designer Craig Henighan accentuates even the most mundane crack of the joints to the point of unbearable torture. Though someone allegedly passed out during the Denver premiere of 127 Hours there was much more consistent, palpable audience squirming during Black Swan.

Nina (Natalie Portman) has been promised bigger roles this ballet season. Her doting mother (Barbara Hershey) fawns over her every night, making sure she is fit and ready for rehearsals. Nina gets the part of the Swan Queen, but there is trouble from the word go. Leroy points out that while Nina is perfect casting for the White Swan, she's too frigid and uptight for the sensual, seductive, evil twin, the Black Swan. Leroy attempts to tease out Nina's buried sexuality, and he doesn't try to clarify whether his motivations are pure or not. To make room for his new star, Leroy “retires” the New York City Ballet's former prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder). When Beth walks out in front of a moving car, Nina internalizes the guilt. Leroy brings in the laid back, hyper-sexual Lilly (Mila Kunis) as the understudy for the lead role, and hints not so subtly that Nina could learn a few lessons from this newcomer. Lilly tries to get Nina to loosen up a little by taking her out for a night of debauchery, but Nina suspects a more sinister motivation: that Lilly would do anything to get the lead role in Swan Lake. While Nina agonizes over maintaining control versus exploring her sensuality, her stifling mother tries to keep her at home, comfortable and safe with pink bedsheets and an army of stuffed animals, and away from harmful forces.

Nina's decent into madness is incremental. I love that there is no magic bullet, where the audience exclaims, “Aha! All Nina needs to do is to get rid of X in her life, and then she will be all better.” There is no easy escape once the downward spiral starts. Her mother, Lilly, Beth, Leroy, her own repressed sexuality, her drive and ambition, exhaustion, and possibly anorexia all play a role in the decent. There is no safe place. Her fate is sown. Her madness both originates from and manifests itself in so many different hazy sources, the way out is lost for her and the viewer.

Black Swan is shot with the same casual, penetrative, hand-held quality as Aronofsky's The Wrestler, but to much different effect. As Nina draws away from reality, she – and we – begin to see strange, uncanny glimpses of horrible, unaccountable things. The camera whips past something half-seen, half-imagined, or some out of focus movement from the edges of the screen. The moments when Black Swan's visual reality begins to slip are more stoically terrifying than any monster could ever be. Mirrors play an important role in Black Swan. In any of the movie's many, many reflective services, the fine line between natural distortion and the sinister rebellion of the reflected image is uncomfortably straddled. Rarely are we presented with concrete horror. Aronofsky is understated, non-committal. You will have knots in your stomach for the movie's entirety, constantly waiting for the other shoe drop that never comes.

Nina rarely interacts with more than one person at time. We see the movie through her eyes, and she is a far less than reliable avatar. After having a whole day to mull over Black Swan, there are still entire characters I’m not sure actually existed. It's a nice trick Aronofsky and Portman pull off, making Nina feel completely isolated in the middle of one of the most populated, vibrant cities in the world.

For a movie that had me on pins and needles, the sex scenes are really sexy, almost pornographic, although there is little to no nudity. Portman plays Nina as so utterly repressed and icy that the glimmers of her awakening sensuality heat up the screen. Aronofsky sadistically plays with the helplessness and vulnerability of sex for even more tension and fear. Nina has a hard time letting her guard down, and for good reason.

I appreciate actors who allow themselves to look less than perfect on screen, especially in a movie about perfection. Natalie Portman looks anorexic, distraught, prematurely wrinkled, and exhausted. Many of diagetic director Leroy's criticisms of Nina could almost double as criticisms of Portman herself. We can almost hear Darren Aronofsky complaining, “Natalie, if we were only casting the White Swan, you’d be perfect,” just as the Leroy does. However, this suggestion is a bait and switch. Portman completely transforms as the Black Swan. It's unlike anything you've ever seen out of the actress before. It doesn't even look like her. Aronofsky and Portman use her real life reputation as an ice queen to their advantage, and it pays off like gangbusters by the movie's finale.

After all the chips have fallen and Black Swan's fatalistic conclusion is laid bare, Nina takes the stage for Swan Lake's final act. I am filled with a sense of mad satisfaction. Everything, even sanity, has been sacrificed for her art, and the reward is perfection. Black Swan is only a tragedy from one point of view.

POSTSCRIPT, IN WHICH I RANT ABOUT THE RED SHOES:

I have to talk about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, that other, brilliant, archetypal ballet classic, The Red Shoes. The Powell and Pressburger masterpiece retains its title as the best movie about ballet ever made. Let's get serious, it's one of the best movies ever made, period. Black Swan probably never really had a chance. Really though, in terms of Powell's pictures, Black Swan makes a much better bedfellow with Peeping Tom. Nina's overbearing mother is an easy proxy for Mark’s diabolical, sadistic father. Both parents lead the way down the rabbit hole of madness with their stifling omnipresence.

One more thing to note about The Red Shoes, and then I promise I'm finished with the comparisons. Powell's star Moira Shearer was a brilliant ballerina who was also a decent actress. Natalie Portman, on the other hand, is a phenomenal actress who happens to be an okay ballerina. Portman's performance as a prima ballerina is never as spectacular as Shearer's. That is admittedly nitpicky, but it just makes you grateful for the perfect storm that Powell and Pressburger generated with The Red Shoes. There will never be another movie like it.

-Ben

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