Dir.  Darren Aronofsky. USA. 2010.

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Normally, emotional breakthroughs lead to an enhancement of one's sense of self worth and a greater sense of personal power. In Darren Aronofsky's super-charged melodrama Black Swan, however, such breakthroughs do not lead to satisfaction but only to madness. Yet the film is such a riveting and unsettling experience that, regardless of its psychological incongruities, it is hard not to succumb to its visceral power or fully admire the beauty of its direction and photography, or the brilliance of its acting. With a screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, Nina Sayres, in an Oscar-worthy performance by Natalie Portman, is a 28-year-old New York City ballet dancer who, in spite of her grueling routine, is committed to ballet as a way of life. She is sexually repressed, however, and plagued by a lack of self esteem to the point of self inflicted injury. 

Like many a driven performer, she is a perfectionist whose worst fear is to come in second. Her experience with men seems to be severely limited and her entire life is devoted to perfecting her dance technique. Unable to fully express herself as an adult, she is controlled and emotionally dependent on her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), while living at home in a room that probably hasn't changed since she was a child with stuffed animals and a music box to listen to every night when she goes to bed. Her mother, though kind and caring on the surface, secretly harbors resentment over the fact that she had to give up a promising ballet career when Nina was born. 

Striving for artistic perfection, Nina is searching for the key role that will define her career and is thrilled when she is chosen by ballet impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to perform the lead in his new production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in which the heroine achieves freedom only in death. Leroy, who looks like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Werner Erhard, is a relentless taskmaster who will not settle for less than 100 percent. Although perfect for the White Swan, he notices that Nina lacks the passion and sensuality to play the seductive Black Swan, a dual role required for all dancers who perform the ballet. 

A notorious womanizer modeled after the famous George Balanchine, Leroy tells her that to realize what the role of the Black Swan demands, she has to let go and free her emotions. To that end, he makes sexual overtures to her, a technique that apparently worked with the forcibly retired Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), an aging former lead who has become bitter and revengeful. Leroy takes on the role of the black prince himself and dances with Nina in a sexually seductive manner but tells her “that was me seducing you, now you have to seduce me.” Her chance to let go of her stifling passivity comes when Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer shows up from San Francisco and captures Leroy's attention for her openness and spontaneity, qualities that Nina sadly lacks. Eager to capitalize on Thomas' interest, Lily maneuvers for the role of Nina's alternate and Nina begins to fear her as a rival. 

Regardless, she goes out with Lily for a night of partying and Lesbian lovemaking which allows her to experience some untapped emotions, perhaps for the first time. As the day of the performance approaches, however, all of Nina's insecurities boil to the surface once again. Tension builds to a breaking point as she begins to unravel emotionally. With hallucinations of standing up to her mother and murdering Lily, the film threatens to become grotesque and sensational. Yet it is redeemed by a stunning climax, one that explodes in a dazzling display of energy and liberation. Aronofsky is a director of great audacity and Black Swan, though it will not leave us with sugarplum fairies dancing in our heads, is a powerful experience that sweeps us up and leaves us limp. 


Howard Schumann

See Shaun McDonald's review of Black Swan here.
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