Sometimes the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a film is its trailer. Trailers can over-or-underemphasize aspects of a film. And even though they shouldn't, they can even have an impact on our initial reactions. That's not the case with Darren Aronofsky's latest, the New York ballet thriller Black Swan. Every ounce of intensity, every hint at madness hinted at in the trailer is shown in full force, making Black Swan the perfect trippy pyscho freak-out for the holidays.
Aronofsky repeatedly described this project as a companion piece to his critically acclaimed 2008 film, The Wrestler. In fact, The Wrestler was originally supposed to center around the relationship between a wrestler and a ballerina: performance forms on opposite ends of the "art spectrum," yet both require equal amounts of painful dedication. And in the opening portions, those traces of The Wrestler still remain. We see Nina (Natalie Portman) wrapping her toes, preparing her slippers, etc. The first time we see ballet, after the fabulous prologue sequence, is in a room full of dancers practicing in tights and sweat pants. In using one art form to look at another, Aronofsky and his writers manage to take a look at the pain and dedication that ballet requires, without feeling like a documentary; the practice scenes are mixed in perfectly with the story and its ever-increasing strangeness.
But Black Swan is also a film of extremes and opposites. The story revolves around director Thomas Leroy's (Vincent Cassel) new, stripped down, "more visceral" interpretation of "Swan Lake." This new version requires the lead ballerina to play both the innocent, virginal white swan, as well as her rival, the black, seductive swan queen. The polarity is present on nearly all levels of the film, starting most obviously with the art direction. Black and white are the two most prominent colors throughout, and even though these symbols made not be understated, they serve a purpose and are effective. For the performances, the polarity comes down to Natalie Portman's bravura performance as Nina, chronicling her shift from timid and tame (and a perfectionist), to wild and sensual (and a liiiiiiittle bit crazy). And of course, the story does it as well. The elements of the supernatural/weird start fairly early, but they're rather subdued, to the point where you might miss or dismiss them. And then, as it charges forward, it goes further down the rabbit hole into insanity, all while never flying off of the rails.
But perhaps what Black Swan does best, is firmly plant us inside of its protagonist's head. If the other characters potentially feel one note, it's because of the amount of effort that has gone into making the film about the struggle Nina goes through, first with her new role, and then with reality. But that's not to say that the other performances are worth dismissing. Cassel is appropriately sleazy and compelling, Kunis is seductive and light as Nina's (alleged) competition, and Barbara Hershey is flat-out creepy as Nina's smothering mother. But this is Portman's show, and she grabs the role entirely by the reins, both physically and emotionally. In a movie where so much of the execution is flashy and dramatic, Portman lends the role a surprising amount of subtlety, which I suppose will reveal more on subsequent viewings when you aren't being dazzled by the construction and style of it all.
Because above all, Black Swan is truly a director's film. Aronofsky perfectly builds the tension, complete with some surprisingly sexual side ventures that lend the first half or so a few touches of pseudo-camp. And if some of the dialogue is slightly expositional or on-the-nose, the film solidifies its status of greatness with the final 20 minutes, which depict the performance of "Swan Lake" on opening night. Dialogue takes a severe back seat, and in its place we get one of the most thrilling performance sequences put on film in recent memory. And with the original score for "Swan Lake" already so magnificent, as the performers dance and Matthew Libatique's swooping cinematography sweeps you off of your feet, Clint Mansell's variations on the score blast from the speakers, and the result is electrifying and rapturous. There are two times in the film when thunderous applause can be heard in the background, and both times, I wanted to join that on-screen audience, because that's just how big of an achievement this film is, both in looking at another art form and in good old fashioned story-telling.