Black Swan (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

Because the film is about her character’s transformation into the Black Swan, it’s easy to overlook how seamlessly Natalie can undergo the same transformation.

 

Reading the description for Black Swan, one has to wonder who it was made for. A horror movie set in the realistically depicted world of professional ballet dancing? Seems like people who like ballet don’t like horror movies, and people who like horror movies don’t like ballet. But how about this for a description: a new movie from Darren Aronofsky that stars Natalie Portman? Now it sounds like Black Swan was made for everyone—Aronofsky is easily one of the best of America’s current crop of young directors, and Natalie is one of Hollywood’s best (and prettiest) actresses. Strangely enough, the film does wind up being for everyone, insofar as it never goes too far into the realm of horror for those easily spooked, nor does it go too deeply into ballet without sneaking some horror in.

The weird thing about Black Swan is that in spite of all of this, it sometimes veers toward being not very good. It’s absolutely worth seeing—it looks like it’s going to get my vote for best actress, director, editing, cinematography and score this year, no kidding. But the script is much weaker than the rest of the film’s elements, and it makes you wonder why such a large group of extremely talented people decided to get together to produce a screenplay that was less than stellar.

Portman plays Nina, an innocent and precision-oriented ballerina, and as the film begins she wants desperately the part of the Swan Queen in her company’s new version of Swan Lake. She’s well-suited to the role of the White Swan, who is innocent and virginal, but she would also have to play the Black Swan, who is passionate and sexy and intimidating and scary—all things Nina is not. The conceit of the script is that we are witnessing a retelling of Swan Lake under the guise of watching a ballet company put on a new version of Swan Lake. The “Black Swan” of the film is Lily, a sadly meatless role played by Mila Kunis, who is great at making you think she’s a bitch without really doing much at all, and the “Prince” of the film is the ballet’s artistic director Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel at his sleazy best.

The story isn’t as inspired as one would hope, and many plot points feel both belabored and sort of insulting. It’s actually hard to notice that this is the case, though, since the filmmakers and cast are all so uniformly excellent, especially Portman and Aronofsky. Natalie has never before been as good as she is as Nina, which is saying something, given that she’s one of our most reliable and respected young actresses. She has a handful of scenes that will really blow you away—to name just one, I’ll bet you now that at this year’s Oscar ceremony they’ll show her scene that comes toward the beginning of the film when she’s on the phone in a bathroom stall telling her mom that she got the part of the Swan Queen. And aside from that, Natalie can switch sides of the White Swan/Black Swan dichotomy effortlessly; because the film is about her character’s transformation into the Black Swan, it’s easy to overlook how seamlessly Natalie can undergo the same transformation. The excellence of Natalie’s performance is codified directly into the script, but it’s handled subtly enough that you might not even notice it’s there.

As for Aronofsky, perhaps the reason why he chose to direct a script that is not as strong as ones he’s written and/or directed in the past is because Black Swan is custom fit to a lot of his preoccupations. No one these days is better at imparting unease, menace or grotesquerie as Aronofsky. After Requiem for a Dream we all know to not feel safe while watching one of his movies, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. | Pete Timmermann
 

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