Great Movies: Black Swan

By Christian DiMartino

Most know Darren Aronofsky’s haunting masterpiece Black Swan as “that ballerina movie where Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis do it.” Understandable, yes, considering the fact that that is a hard scene to miss (or, if you have it on DVD or Blu-Ray, rewind over and over). But let’s look at the bigger picture: Black Swan is a dark, disturbing, fascinating film, from a filmmaker who has gone to dark, disturbing places in his impressive career.

I feel like this is Aronofsky’s best work. A bold statement, considering the fact that this is the man who brought us Requiem for a Dream. But Black Swan takes us to places that we have been before, but adds a dark, terrifying spin to it.

The film’s hero is an aspiring young ballerina named Nina (played by Natalie Portman). Nina is shy, kind of awkward, and lives with her weird mother (played by Barbara Hershey), who gave up her ballerina career to have Nina, and from time to time, sits in a weird little room and paints these creepy paintings, while crying. I told you this was a weird movie.

The ballet studio is getting ready for their next season, and Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director of sorts, has announced a new twist on the classic “Swan Lake”: Rather than have two dancers playing the White and Black swan, he says that one dancer must capture both essences equally.

Nina has the White Swan down, but has difficulty capturing the Black Swan. Thomas acknowledges this, but gives her the role anyways, because he has faith that she can pull it off (plus, he kind of has the hots for her. Who doesn’t?). He tells her that she never truly “loses herself.” And boy, lose herself she does.

In trying to capture the Black Swan, Nina DOES begin losing herself. She loses a grip on reality, begins hallucinating and what not. Then, to make matters worse, another babe named Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives, and Nina sees her as a threat. THEN, to top it off, Nina’s overbearing mother is a bit of a nutcase herself.

This film could easily be compared to the likes of All About Eve and The Turning Point in terms of story. But Aronofsky add their own twist to it that makes it feel completely theirs. It’s a brilliant twist at that.

Part of what makes experiencing Black Swan so terrifying is the fact that we are seeing everything that Nina sees. After a while, we the viewer cannot tell what is real or imaginary. One could call this a flaw, but I found this to be a more effective approach, particularly when Nina goes completely off the deep-end in the final act.

The cinematography from Aronofsky’s usual collaborator Matthew Libatique is bleak and kind of beautiful. It adds a certain dreaminess to the feeling of the film. Considering Nina is in a bit of a daze anyways, I couldn’t picture it filmed any other way.

The screenplay, particularly when Kunis speaks (“All you gotta do is let him lick your p***y”) is over-the-top, but funny. As an idea though, this film is utterly brilliant. The way the story unfolds and the way it syncs up with “Swan Lake” is clever.

Aronofsky tampers with a lot of fascinating ideas, and sometimes they shouldn’t work. But yet they always work. He really brought together the perfect cast here. Kunis, Cassel, Hershey, and Winona Ryder (in a brief role as an aging ballerina named Beth) fire on all cylinders. However, by now it goes without saying that this is most definitely Portman’s show. Even that is an understatement though.

I have seen a lot of great performances since the start of this decade, and I mean a lot. So, it might come as a shock to say that Portman’s performance here is my favorite of the decade thus far, and may continue to hold that spot until 2020 rolls around.

Yeah yeah yeah that stunt double claimed that she didn’t deserve the Oscar because she didn’t do all of the dancing. I don’t think she won for the dancing though. No, she won because her performance is terrifying perfection. We are both scared of Nina, and we are truly scared for her. She handles every scene with great care and gusto. It’s a heroic performance, really, and it’s one that keeps the film afloat. It would probably be a great film without her. With her though, it’s incredible.

I still say that Inception is the best film of 2010, with this one just a notch behind it. Nina aspires to be perfect, and I’ll be damned if Portman didn’t nail it. The film itself is perfect. I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes it into my top five for the decade.

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