Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Film Review: Black Swan

"Black Swan" **** (out of ****)

"Black Swan" (2010) is a weirdo masterpiece.

Here is a film about the battle of good and evil within us, the desire to achieve perfection and artistic dedication.

The movie was directed by art-house favorite Darren Aronofsky. I'm usually a fan of Mr. Aronofsky. His films have a way of dividing an audience. But, even on his more experimental films such as "Pi" (1998) and "The Fountain" (2006), I find myself in his corner.

"Black Swan" wants to be a modern adaptation of "Swan Lake", but it becomes a weird, brain teaser that for most of the film's running time had me shaking my head in bewilderment.

The film switches between fact and fiction so often, sometimes without much warning, that I was getting so confused after I while I just said to Hell with it and gave up. To steal a line from Cole Porter, I just decided to let Mr. Aronofsky do that voodoo that you do so well. I was going to stop trying to interpret the movie and throw caution to the wind.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers. A young ballet dancer who wants a starring role in the new production of "Swan Lake". The ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) however feels Nina is too restricted and lacks the ability to loosen up and become sexually uninhibited. He even asks her, as a "homework" assignment to masturbate.

Nina is presented as a child, living with her mother (Barbara Hershey) who is over protective. They seem to have a close relationship on the surface but underneath it all may be some resentment. Nina just might think her mother is envious of her and perhaps mom, who gave up her career to raise a child, really doesn't want her daughter to succeed. Or is it all in Nina's head?

A new dancer enters the company, Lily (Mila Kunis) who might just be after Nina. Does Lily want to kill Nina? Does Lily want to star in "Swan Lake". Is Lily a stalker?

Aronofsky keeps dropping very subtle hints concerning deep, dark secrets within Nina. We see scar marks on her back. She locks herself in her room. And has a tendency to steal from the now retiring principle dancer in the company, Beth (Winona Ryder).

At first I was bothered by all of these subtle hints and wish the film had been more open with Nina's secrets. What are the implications of these scars? How does this raise dramatic tension? Where is the conflict? Mr. Aronofsky wouldn't show us these details if they weren't part of a larger picture. Still during most of the film I couldn't help but feel Nina was too much of a secret herself.

But then events explode in the final act. The movie turns itself upside down and we have to start all over again.

Soon we have to rethink Nina. And credit must be given to Ms. Portman. She should get an Oscar nomination but I'm not sure she will. The movie is quite frankly too damn weird. It is probably too weird for a mainstream group like Academy Award voters. And it is going to be too unconventional for a majority of movie-going audiences.

There is vulnerability to Portman's performance. She risks so much in this role. She puts herself out there. It has to be one of her bravest performances to date.

"Black Swan" is a dizzying experience yet it is enthralling and exhilarating. I don't know if it is one of the year's best films but Mr. Aronofsky and company put on one damn good show.