Saturday, February 05, 2011

Black Swan


It's clearly no surprise about the full house in today's sneak preview of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, given the buzz built from lead actress Natalie Portman's win at the Golden Globes, and various other Oscar nominations now surrounding it, including an outside chance of winning Best Picture come end of the month. And as if the slow mutilation of Portman's Nina isn't enough to chip away at her good girl persona and character, you can just about trust our local censors for wanting to get a piece of the action as well through exercising its scissors to mutilate the film in a critical scene between Mila Kunis and Portman when the latter ultimately experienced the crescendo of her letting go.

I think many in my generation and older have seen how Natalie Portman has grown up in cinema, from her unforgettable introduction into the silver screen through Luc Besson's Leon the Professional, to the more adult role now offered by Darren Aronofsky to push her boundaries, and in a case of life imitating art and vice versa, it's somehow surreal that it's precisely the same boundaries that Portman's character Nina the ballerina has to break through in order to own her role as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. It's also deals with the perils of getting too absorbed into a role to the point of obsession, having that line that separates reality and fantasy get really blurred, to the detriment of the self-absorbed thespian, and here we observe Nina's horrific metamorphosis from all things good to a mean, and psychotic even, streak.

One of the highlights of the film is how layered Andre Heinz's story is, taking place on many planes and even running parallel to that in real life with Natalie Portman taking on an adult role, and of course that between her character Nina and the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Like the latter, Nina becomes a little bit paranoid that her lucky run may just get derailed by the introduction of another talented dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who has that extra X-factor to outshine her, and similar to the taking away of the Prince of her dreams, would actually get an outside chance to steal her dream leading role from right under her nose, something that she (and any other ballerina in a troupe) would covert through all means possible.

You can just about see how this film is like a companion piece to Aronofsky's The Wrestler, with both taking place in niche entertainment circles that call for being at the physical peak, as well as countless of hours in training just to be able to entertain an audience, gain fans, admirers and followers, and wow when the lights come on in the ring or stage. Character wise, they're of the opposite ends, with one being at the twilight of one's career, and the other given a window of opportunity to shine.

But back to Natalie Portman, her performance here is nothing less than magnificent, and like many other actors before her, she too her undergone some physical transformation to be that zero fat ballerina with impeccable graces, doing a great job in bringing forth her character's constant obsession with perfection, pummeling herself in training if she's not meeting her own incredible standards. We witness her transformation from innocence to rebellious in that quest to, as advised, transcend what she already is, into something she isn't and overcoming her inhibitions, thereby adding a surprising wow factor in her performance. It is this transformation all within the film, that will make one sit up and take notice as she tussles from nice, to bad, to somewhere in between.

Like its fellow Oscar contender The Fighter, Black Swan also boasts wonderful performances from its supporting cast. Mila Kunis as Lily was great as the competition who always seem to be inching closer and closer as a bona fide replacement should Nina finally get pushed over the edge, and provides constant fodder for Nina to always look over her shoulder. Vincent Cassell also always look comfortable playing slimy roles, and as the artistic director of the ballet company that's seeking new funding through a new production with a promising new lead, makes enough moves on Nina that you can on one hand feel he's taking advantage of the ingenue, yet on the other hand knows just all the right buttons to push to get a performance of a lifetime from his ballerinas. Winona Ryder has a small role here as the discarded ballerina has-been, and Barbara Hershey shines as the protective mom of Nina's who's constant fussing over her daughter and her prospective successes which becomes a confirmed recipe for exploding past the stifling environment she provides Nina with.

I was also looking forward to listening to Clint Mansell's score in this film since he has so far scored most, if not all, of Aronofsky's films, but somehow it got drowned out. Be warned though that not only is this film an effective psychological thriller with plenty of reflective surfaces in almost all the scenes to peel into the inner world of Nina and her inevitable change, but it is also as effective somehow as a horror film toward the latter half with its frightening scenes, employing some of the usual bag of tricks in raking up the good old fashion scares to a successful degree. Definitely highly recommended, although I will advise to seek out a more complete film elsewhere rather than to head to the cinemas for a disrespectful, mutilated cut.

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