Friday, December 17, 2010

Black Swan (2010)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

We've seen films that have been focused on a protagonist's descent into madness before. But it's never been done quite like director Darren Aronofsky's film, Black Swan.

This was one of the few films I was excited about this year -- from the moment I first saw the trailer, I couldn't wait to see how the two duelling halves of a ballet dancer's mind would pan out under Aronofsky's direction. There's always this reluctance when I'm really excited about a film -- I always wonder if it will live up to the hype and the greatness of its trailer. Thankfully, Black Swan lives up to its rave critical reviews.

This is a very difficult movie to review without giving everything away. For a lack of a better word, the film is completely demented. It's bizarre, twisted, over-the-top and, at times, downright campy. That being said, I loved every minute of it. It's a breath of fresh air amidst the sequels, prequels and romcoms that usually fill the cinema's around this time of year.

What it all comes down to, though, is the performance by Natalie Portman. Without her, Black Swan would have lost a large portion of what makes it work so well. As young dancer, Nina, Portman is so convincing in her role that you literally feel you are witnessing an actual nervous breakdown. Nina works though her gruelling auditions in an attempt to convince both herself and her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that she can convincingly portray both the ethereal and graceful white swan, Odette, and Odette's dark, sexual and possessive counterpart, Odile, the black swan, in the company's upcoming production of Swan Lake.

I've always found Portman to be a little hit or miss, as an actress. It's hard to believe the same woman who struggled through the Star Wars prequels is now the lead contender for Best Actress in this years Oscar race. Her delicate, innocent and almost childlike portrayal of Nina is heartbreaking as she awkwardly struggles to find her darker, sexualized self. Portman effectively portrays both the light and dark within Nina and, most surprisingly, does a lot of her own ballet dancing in the film. I have nothing but the utmost respect for actors who immerse themselves in research for their roles and it's clear that Portman spent a lot of time preparing for her greatest role yet.

Nina lives in a world of pink pyjamas and teddy bears (her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, still tucks her in at night) in an attempt to move past her dark past of bulimia and a scratching disorder. But with the mounting pressures of the upcoming Swan Lake production and the vicious taunting by Thomas, backup dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and former ballet queen, Beth (Winona Ryder), results in Nina's violent, sexual and dark hallucinations. Her dark swan is struggling to break through it's pure white exterior.

The Toronto Star movie critic, Peter Howell, made a good point when he said that Aronofsky tends to take one intense main performance (as he did most recently with The Wrestler) and "frames it within an unyielding study of an obsessive pursuit."

The supporting cast holds up well considering the focus is almost entirely on Portman. I only wish we got to learn more about Cassel's Thomas in terms of his motivations and treatment of Nina.

Overall, this exciting and odd little film has not only one of the strongest female performances of the year but it's also visually beautiful and the dancing is incredible.