Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie Review - Black Swan

Black Swan - ***1/2

Perception is Reality. Or is it?

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mils Kunis, Barbara Hershey

Review: Everyone handles pressure differently. Some people thrive on it, some people cower beneath it, but everyone reacts to it differently. Some people put pressure on themselves, some people accept the pressure that other push on to them. One way or another, everyone has to deal with some form of pressure in their lives.

There are two life choices that have always struck me as some of the most pressure filled - gymnastics and ballet. These people dedicate their entire lives to their field, often giving up their childhoods and most normalcy in order to hone and perfect their craft. Such a choice has never made sense to me how some people would choose to give up all other experiences in their lives for this one singular purpose. Therein lies the reasoning behind why there is so much pressure, nobody would give up all that to fail at something.

Nina Sayers is one of those people. Nina, has given up everything that could have been meaningful in her life in order to achieve perfection in hopes of one day becoming the feature ballerina in her company. Nina has surrounded herself with people who all have the same goals for her. Nina still lives with her mother who seemingly wants Nina to succeed more than Nina does and wants to live out all her unaccomplished dreams through her daughter. Much of the pressure in Nina's life comes from her overprotective mother projecting her own pressures upon Nina.

It is impossible for Nina to live on the rails her mother has set for her. The sheltered lifestyle Nina has lived is part of the reason why she finds herself consumed by the pressure that surrounds her everyday life. When Nina finally gets her dream role as the swan queen in the new performance of 'Swan Lake,' it is a dream come true and a curse all at the same time. This event validates Nina's life to this point yet also puts an impossible amount of pressure upon Nina that her fragile existence is no equipped to handle.

The pressure eventually gets to Nina. She is constantly being hounded by her mother (of whom she has a very 'Carrie' like relationship with), is constantly being reminded of her shortcoming by the director, and has to deal with the constant reminder that everyone else in the company is hoping she fails so they can step in to her role. Everyone in the movie has felt pressure in their lives and feels it currently and they are all projecting it on to Nina. Her mother wants her to succeed where she never could, her director (played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel) needs to find a way to make his company relevant again, and every other female dancer in the company wants Nina to fail.

After all this mounts for long enough Nina begins to crumble and finds herself projecting her own fears, desires, inadequacies, and pressures on to...on to...whomever she can. Nina's mental stability begins to fall apart and the only way for her to cope is to project all her emotions onto others. This is where the lines begin to fade. Are her projections manifesting themselves into physical action or are they simply, projections?

Aronofsky toys with the audience and keeps everyone guessing. While most of the questions are answered rather quickly the fascination here is not with whether or not they are real, but rather Portman's breathtaking performance as someone who herself doesn't even know whether or not they are real. Portman gives a performance that Oscar's are made out of. Rarely do you find an actor as able as Portman to convey such unbridled emotion and such constant emotion without making it look cheesy.  Portman does it with ease.

The awakening of a young woman to the world around her is also not accomplished without other's around her to open up that world and take her through the door. Cassel is brilliant in his role as someone who battles with Nina's sheltered upbringing to get her sexual side to open up so she can convincingly play the role of the black swan.

Movies as viscerally impressive as this don't come along that often. Aronofsky has an eye for the visual that is matched by few. He is also a master of getting performances out of actors that few others could. Aronofsky's usual material borders on the weird and in the hands of someone less skilled would cross that line, but right when you think that it's going too far Aronofsky is able to reign it back in. It's a skill few directors have and he has mastered it to perfection.

I would say this is DEFINITELY worth your time. It's not going to be for everybody, but I will say that technically you'd be hard pressed to see a better one this year.

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