Black Swan (2010).

D: Darren Aronofsky. DP: Matthew Libatique. W: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin, story by Andres Heinz. Starring: Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis/Vincent Cassel/Barbara Hershey/Winona Ryder/Benjamin Millepied/Ksenia Solo.

Hands down the most buzzed, tweeted, and talked about performance of 2010, Natalie Portman’s Black Swan is surely Oscar worthy and easily her best work yet. Yet it was not all that easy. Just as much Portman’s film as director Darren Aronofsky’s, Black Swan demands your attention, your brain, and your guts.

Set in New York City in a fictional ballet company, the film immediately identifies its heroine (or foe?) as Portman’s Nina Sayers. Who is not only “the most dedicated dancer in the company,” per her mother (played by Hershey), but probably the most repressed, in more ways than one. Portman is first seen dancing the role of the swan queen or Odette in the famous Swan Lake ballet. First performed in 1877 and written from 1875-1876 by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (also responsible for The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty ballets), Swan Lake is an enduring and popular tale of love, betrayal and the many sides of femininity. Announced as their newest production, Portman’s ballet company immediately needs a new principal dancer for the lead role of Odette and Odile (the swan queen and black swan). And so the real story begins…

Portman’s Nina, plagued by her consistent soloist status and impeccable technique goes after the role. Here (and throughout) Portman shines. Her year long training not only gave her the body of a professional ballet dancer, but clearly allowed her to fully engage in the psychosis and intensity it takes to work one’s body so specifically, yet so artistically. She essentially carries the entire film from pointe shoe to final pirouette. Thankfully, Portman also makes the film engaging. Grainy, tight, and at moments feverish, the camera clearly loves its star. And her unraveling mentally and physically seems to manifest itself not only in the story, but in the frame. Aronofsky puts his audience right with Portman, backstage, in bed, everywhere, and does not allow his effects to detract from the power of his images or performances.

Supporting her along the way is the ballet company’s artistic director played by Vincent Cassel. Clearly taking a page out of famous New York City ballet master George Balanchine, Cassel uses sex, exhaustion, and manipulation to push his lead into the performance he wants. My only complaint would be that he is unable or anyone really, to get Portman to relax. Her only physical blemish is her tight torso, a back that could only really be relaxed and flexible with years of training. Yet, also memorable is Mila Kunis as ballet adversary Lily. If you can ignore her stereotypical smoking, drugs, and lateness (classic signs of the rebellious ballerina) Kunis is able to stand her own opposite Portman. Acting as a mirror into Portman’s repressed, yet obsessive nature, Kunis is ultimately Portman’s catalyst towards perfection.

Ultimately, what really is successful about Black Swan is its commitment to its story and characters rather than dance. The film asks questions about suppression, sexuality, gender roles, and the list goes. This allows many different audiences to access the film and actually become educated about ballet and the rigorous toll of physical art. No matter an audience’s reaction, most will be ignorantly stunned by the discipline and energy necessary to achieve any sort of stature in the ballet world. And hopefully, when they’re ready, these people will grab some coffee with me and we can talk ballet, because this is only the turning point. Did I even go off about the music? Ahhhhh…

 

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