Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Darren Aronofsky Stage Mesmerizing ‘Black Swan’

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Average: 5 (12 votes) Oscarman rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” pulses with the kind of energy and life that we only see from cinema a few times a year. With creative expression rarely seen in American film and one of the best performances by an actress that you will ever see, “Black Swan” is a film that resonates for hours and even days after you see it. You won’t easily shake this masterpiece. And you won’t want to.

There are films that twist and turn toward a specific interpretation. Films like “Fight Club” or “The Sixth Sense” rely on a twist that is designed to change the way you view what you just saw while films like “Inception” work to constantly keep the viewer asking questions about exactly “what is going on.” It may be tempting to approach “Black Swan” in the same way – trying to figure out exactly what’s real and what’s imagined; trying to “interpret” the film.

Black Swan
Black Swan
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

And yet not all art needs to be explained. There’s a moment in “Black Swan” where a teacher looks at a student and instructs her that all that stands in front of her is herself and that she needs to let herself go. It could very well be a stand-in for Aronofsky and the viewer: the director telling you to simply take this ride. Don’t look at it as a mystery to be solved. We appreciate forms of art in which we’re more accustomed to unexplainable events like ballet, opera, or even dance without question – merely taking in the emotion and riding on the feelings. Aronofsky and writers Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin are trying to do much the same thing. Don’t interpret the dream literally. Just marvel at what it makes you feel.

In a career-best performance that also stands as the best of the year in any category, Natalie Portman stars as a ballet dancer named Nina Sayers. She’s a fragile soul who lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey) and has clearly devoted much of her body and soul to her craft. Nina works for a company headed by the intense Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who announces that he will be staging a deconstruction of the legendary “Swan Lake.” His longtime lead dancer Beth (Winona Ryder) will not be taking the role of The Swan Queen, leaving it open for Nina to prove that she’s worth the part. Meanwhile, a newcomer named Lily (Mila Kunis) threatens Nina’s possible stardom while also challenging her to find the “Black Swan” within.

“Black Swan” is a film about many things and it’s naturally hard for a critic to say “don’t interpret it” and then offer an interpretation, but I think the thematic foundation of the story is about how much of an artist is required to give of herself to succeed. If “The Wrestler” was about a man who gave his entire body for success, “Black Swan” is a film about a woman who gives even more – her identity. She loses herself completely first by giving over her physical self and then possibly goes insane, depending on your interpretation of the chilling, terrifying final act of the film, in which it becomes unclear what’s real and what’s imagined and, as I said, only really becomes effective when you realize it doesn’t matter.

Black Swan
Black Swan
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

To say “Black Swan” plays like a nightmare doesn’t quite capture it. Too many films have played like bad dreams and that clichéd description doesn’t quite work here. Like the best work of David Lynch or Dario Argento, “Black Swan” plays like part-dream and part-reality at the same time. It’s more about symbols, emotions, themes, and other elements that most filmmakers don’t even dare try to capture in film. It works on parts of your brain and heart that moviegoers aren’t used to exercising in the theater and, consequently, it’s certainly not a film for everyone. But those who love it will fall head over heels.

As far as the individual elements of “Black Swan” are concerned, I simply can’t say enough about Natalie Portman’s performance. She gives all of herself to the part and is simply devastating in every scene. It is the kind of dedication by an actor that we only see every few years. Mila Kunis does the best work of her career and Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey take roles that could have easily become hammy villains and give mesmerizing performances. They’re both worthy of supporting Oscar consideration.

Black Swan
Black Swan
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Of course, when an entire ensemble delivers as completely as the one in “Black Swan,” credit must go to the director and Darren Aronofsky’s accomplishments here cannot be understated. This is such a confident, powerful piece of directorial work, beautifully merging themes that he’s played with before (obsession, performance, control, madness) with the technical accomplishments of regular collaborators like cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell.

“Black Swan” will be something different for you than it was for me, but to this viewer it represents that thing only seen in a movie theater a few times a year – when cinema transcends celluloid to become art.

‘Black Swan’ stars Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder. It was written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin and directed by Darren Aronofsky. It opens on December 3rd, 2010. It is rated R. content director Brian Tallerico

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