At 18, I’m probably a little young to be using the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” but I can’t help but have it come to mind when talking about “Black Swan.” Simply put, Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant directorial artistry has culminated in a stunning masterpiece that is unmatched in vision or ambition by anything that cinema has churned out in a long time.
It’s so bold and daring that to call it wowing simply doesn’t do the experience justice. Aronofsky weaves together the beauty of ballet with the terror of psychological meltdown with such nimble grace that it leaves you reeling long after leaving the theater.
There’s really no one else but Aronofsky who could pull off a big, brassy movie like this. He’s simply the best visual filmmaker out there. As if his first two movies, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” weren’t powerful enough, “Black Swan” is Aronofsky in full bloom, showing absolute command of all cinematic vocabulary. There is no boundary too sacred or stiff for him to toy with, and he doesn’t so much push them as he does eradicate them. Thus, “Black Swan” isn’t just a victory for Aronofsky and the rest of the crew; it’s a victory for the craft of filmmaking as we know it.
The film is chalked full of imagery, symbolism, and visual motifs that jump off the frame and into your lap. It’s so clear that Aronofsky is intimately involved in sculpting every frame and every moment down to the colors of the room. His presence is terrifyingly arresting, and it feels like he himself is reaching out to grab your heart and pump it at a million beats per minute. The racing begins in the first scene and doesn’t let up even when the credits roll.
To give Aronofsky all the credit for the transcendent “Black Swan” would be misguided. His frequent collaborators composer Clint Mansell, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and editor Andrew Weisblum help to weave the fabric of a work as agile and elegant as the toes of a ballerina. These elements, simultaneously gorgeous and horrifying, ensure our full immersion into the work.
But so much credit is due to the script and actors, particularly Natalie Portman. There’s so much depth and action in the movie that it’s hard to see the whole picture in just one viewing. But from what I can gather, it is a movie about the quest for perfection and the price that art takes on the performer. Nina Sayers (Portman) has dedicated herself to the craft of ballet for her whole life and has emerged as one of the company’s premier dancers. In director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) rendition of “Swan Lake,” the prima ballerina will have to meld together the pure White Swan and the sensual Black Swan.
The innocent, virginal Nina is the perfect fit for the White Swan but struggles to reach her darker side. It comes easy for Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer in the company who moves with a tempting eroticism. The competition drives Nina to her physical and emotional limits as she lets the role and the stress consume her entirely. Combined with the tension added by her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself, Nina moves rapidly towards a breaking point where reality and insanity blend seamlessly.
All of the performances match the movie note for note in intensity. Kunis is a surprisingly skillful actress, and her physical commitment to the seductress Lily makes for an enticing character. She keeps her motives so mysterious and hidden that we can’t help but feel the need to assume the role of the detective to figure out what is making her tick. Cassel, as the only major male in the movie, is a forceful presence throughout.
Also notable is Winona Ryder as the ousted prima ballerina, and the long latent actress gives her a nightmarish quality that is quite haunting. Yet the best of the supporting bunch is by far and away Hershey as the pushy and demanding stage mom. Such roles often become stock characters; however, Hershey takes the role in frightening and invigorating new directions.
But the star of the show is Portman, and “Black Swan” is made all the more fascinating by how Nina’s development mirrors her performance. Much like Nina must lose herself in the role of the Swan Princess, Portman absolutely disappears into her character. It’s a shocking and startling transformation due to Portman’s dedication to learning the craft of ballet and her impeccable acting. The movie stands as a testament to the fact that she is one of the best emerging actresses of her generation, and her flawless showing here deserves to be minted in history alongside the greatest of all time. Portman gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and to miss it would be to deny yourself the chance to see as close to perfection as is cinematically possible. A /