Portman’s Rapturous ‘Black Swan’ Turn May Dance Off With Oscar
It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off “Black Swan.” Darren Aronofsky’s darkly beautiful psycho-sexual thriller is a captivating cinematic achievement that will likely leave you stunned and talking about the film long after exiting the theatre. It’s also already garnered its share of Awards’ season buzz, collecting Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Independent Spirit and SAG nominations, all solid predictors of likely Oscar accolades.
Natalie Portman– in a rapturous, Oscar-worthy performance– plays Nina a young ballerina whose break out dual role as the White and Black Swan in a prestigious New York City ballet troupe’s new production of “Swan Lake” has her teetering on the edge of madness. The troupe’s callous, driven director Thomas (the icy Vincent Cassel)after nudging the company’s aging diva Beth ( Winona Ryder in a brief, nearly wasted role) into retirement, plucks Nina from the pack of hopeful corps dancers. He knows she’s got the technical chops. And the innocent aura to dance the the virginal White Swan. But handling the darker shades of sexual seduction of the Black Swan, may prove Nina’s undoing.
The physical and emotional demands of such an obsessive, disciplined life takes its toll. We witnessed a parallel story in Aronofsky’s acclaimed 2008 film “The Wrestler” (which fetched top Independent Spirit honors for both the film and its comeback star Mickey Rourke). Here Nina grapples with career anxiety amid a backdrop of stunted growth. She lives with her ex-dancer mom ( Barbara Hershey in a truly creepy performance), surrounded by overgrown stuffed bunnies in a very pink, child-like bedroom. To say Aronofsky doles out the symbolism with a heavy hand is an understatement.
Mama–who clearly is ambivalent about her daughter’s success eclipsing her own mediocre career as a corps dancer–pushes and undermines Nina. She monitors her diet, serving up the requisite grapefruits and hard boiled eggs, then berates Nina when she eschews a special cake. She pushes Nina into the prima ballerina role, then lets her sleep late on opening night. The grueling physical torture dancers must endure, all graphically detailed, is not enough for Nina. For relief or self punishment–or more likely both–she scratches herself raw.
Nina’s fragile psyche continues to unravel as a new dancer Lily ( the captivating Mila Kunis) enters the scene. Nina views Lily’s alluring sexuality as a personal and professional threat. While she fears the new dancer may be angling for her part, Nina is drawn to the savvier vixen, and embarks on a friendship that exposes Nina to a cornucopia of possibilities and consequences.
The film’s tag-team script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin offers little more than a cliche framework, pulling its psychology out of “Freud For Dummies.” The supporting players do their best to elevate the archetypes: Hershey’s repressive mother, Cassel’s strict disciplinarian, Ryder’s washed up diva, Kunis’ seductive temptress. It is left to the actors and audience to puzzle out Nina’s demons. This, initially, feels like little more than an intriguing cinematic parlor game. But days after seeing the film, I’m still thinking about it, still mulling it over with friends. And I credit Aronoksky’s deft, directorial hand. With a crafty blend of cinematic trickery and pure artistry, he has created a masterful portrait (though not a masterpiece), one with images that linger.
But it is Portman–who endured a year of intense ballet training prior to filming–who will likely receive the film’s loudest ovations. Her performance embodies the physical demands and the incendiary emotions of a young dancer spinning into a a dark psychological abyss. It’s a role- shrouded in Aronofsky’s dark, claustrophobic splendor–that could have the star dance off with an Oscar.
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