Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Have you ever wanted something so badly that the desire to have it made you crazy? Then say you finally got this something that you wanted so badly only to discover that it made you even crazier? When I was eight there was this Hot-Wheel I wanted called the Packin’ Pacer and I wanted this car so bad I think my mom actually contemplated choking me to death. When she finally relented and bought it for me I became so possessive of this car that I couldn’t even sleep without worrying about its well being to the point my mom eventually tracked it down and just threw it away. It took a while for me to forgive her for this. Seriously, that’s the best I can do to relate to what Natalie Portman as the character of Prima Ballerina Nina Sayers is going through in director Darren Arnofsky’s spectacular descent into mental illness, ‘Black Swan’.

Nina just wants to be the best ballerina that she can possibly be. She’s dedicated, almost to a fault, trains incessantly, eats next nothing and what little she does eat she quickly expunges, and the age of 28 she is still coddled by her over bearing, over protective, completely controlling and somewhat unstable mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Then a little good fortune comes the way of the meek and quiet little Nina. The company’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), note this is pronounced ‘Toe-Ma’ since he’s all artistic and stuff, but Thomas is resurrecting Swan Lake and he’s also jettisoned the resident Prima Ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) which means there is an opening for a new Prima.

Not to get into the story of Swan Lake which features the prima playing the dual characters of the good white swan and the evil black swan but Nina wants this. I mean she wants it something awful. She frets and stresses and hallucinates and practices and all of her hard work isn’t lost on Toe-Ma who believes that Nina just might be his girl, but where she is technically perfect for the White Swan, the Black Swan has to be free spirited, elusive, seductive, fearless… and considering that Nina is afraid of her own shadow these are attributes that do not come easy for the woman. Still, Thomas sees potential in Nina if she could just let loose a little bit. I believe his techniques to get Nina to loosen up would probably have him on sexual harassment charges in most states.

Then the troupe gets a new member in Lily (Mila Kunis) who just so happens to be free spirited, elusive, seductive and fearless and for whatever reason she seems to have taken a liking to Nina. Or not. Who knows? You see the problem is that Nina has gone and driven herself plum crazy. Recognize that her equally crazy, resentful, and possibly sabotaging stage mother isn’t helping the crazy, I mean when a 28-year old woman can’t even touch herself with some peaceful privacy it’s probably past time to move out, but the majority of Nina’s psychoses are self inflicted. Nina is scratching herself into a bloody mess, or not, everybody is clearly out to get her, or not, she’s being mercilessly stalked… by herself, or not, and she’s a raging lesbian… or not. Regardless, it is performance day, things are worse than they’ve ever been and she still hasn’t been able to tap into her wild side to unleash the Black Swan inside. Don’t want to spoil it for you but sometimes the Black Swan is better left locked away.

A couple of things had I heard about ‘Black Swan’ before I had the opportunity to watch it. One would be that potential viewers will either love it or hate it. Clearly I loved it. I had no idea that watching a film which largely consists of a lot behind the scenes ballet company melodrama could be so perverse and ultimately so much fun. Another thing I had heard about this movie was that it was ‘trashy’. After watching the movie I actually had to look up what was so trashy about it. Eventually I learned that Natalie Portman’s partially clothed masturbation scene and Ms. Portman’s and Ms. Kunis’ nudity free love scene was the trashy part. I don’t know, but probably because I’m way past jaded or due to the fact that the combined weight of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman is 82 pounds, those scenes didn’t seem all that trashy to me. I wouldn’t parade it out there for my granny to see but then you know, she’s like 98.

I’ve seen two ballet’s in my life, those being ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘The Nutcracker’. That’s ballet 101 right there. That’s akin to saying the you’ve seen two movies, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Titanic’, which is to tell you that I have no affinity towards the art of ballet and initially had no particular desire in seeing this movie. However there is so much in ‘Black Swan’ that is so good and so engaging… Natalie Portman’s tortured and frustrating performance, Barbara Hershey doing crazy once again (remember what she did to poor Roy Hobbs), observing Vincent Cassel’s Thomas command the screen in his attempts to sexually manipulate his desired performance out of Nina, Arnofsky’s ability to translate to an audience the passion and dedication required to succeed in the art of ballet while managing to make this viewing intensely entertaining, and Matthew Libatique’s dazzling cinematography which produces images that seem to pop off screen without the use of 3D glasses. There’s a lot to admire about this film.

The narrative itself is fairly simple, the whole concept of Nina embodying the swans in her real life isn’t the most complex metaphor out there, and there were times were we found the character of Nina mighty frustrating. By the time she made it to where we all knew she had to go, we were relieved because watching Natalie Portman’s Nina mouse her way through this movie was starting to grate on a nerve. We knew it probably wasn’t in the character’s best interest to go where we knew she had to go, but we sure were glad to see her finally get there.

Finally, another relief for me is that I’m being forced, yet again, to create one of those ‘ten best’ lists I abhor compiling, particularly this year because so few movies I’ve at this late date in 2010 have moved me to the point where I jumped up and said ‘That one’s going on my list!’. ‘Black Swan’ is going on my list.

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