Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Black Swan (2010)

Director: Darren Arnofsky                              Writer: Mark Heyman & Andres Heinz
Film Score: Clint Mansel                               Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey

There hasn’t been a good ballet film since The Turning Point in 1977, but all of the same motifs are still there: the aging ballerina whose dancing days have come to an end, the mother who gave up her dancing career to raise her daughter, the overbearing director, the new ballerina taking her place center stage as the star, and the underling who threatens to outdance her. But The Black Swan has a twist, or should I say the film itself is twisted?

The story is about a veteran ballerina, Natalie Portman, who finally gets her chance to star in the ballet company’s season opening production of Swan Lake. While she is perfect for the role of the white swan, the director, Vincent Cassel, has his doubts about her ability to play the evil black swan. He confronts her, pushes her, and challenges her to find her inner dark side, her temptress within, with unintended results. When Portman begins seeing herself on the subway, walking past herself on the sidewalk, and in mirrors behind her, it’s clear that something other worldly--or more likely inner worldly--is taking place.

Portman won the Academy Award that year for best actress in a fairly weak field. Still, her performance is arresting and she did an outstanding job not only with the dramatic part of the role, but also apparently with the dancing. It must be noted, however, that the bulk of the shots of Portman dancing are fairly close up and don’t show her legs at all, the long shots featuring dance double Sarah Lane. The direction by Darren Arnofsky is unique, to be sure. The camera seems to stalk Portman everywhere throughout the film, and the special effects of the hallucinations are quite eerie. While the film score is credited to Clint Mansel, the bulk of the music comes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It’s taken a bit fast at times, but it is still quite good.

In addition to Portman, there are some nice performances. Barbara Hershey is unsettling as the overly controlling stage mother who dominates Portman at the beginning of the film. Vincent Cassel’s character had the potential to come off as stereotypically manipulative, but his character is reigned in enough to allow him some humanity. And Mila Kunis is very good as the new dancer in the company who threatens Portman by her presence. The Black Swan is not a great one, with the exception of Portman’s performance, but it is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless, and deserving of a viewing just to see Arnofsky’s unique vision.

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