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Audaciously weird and scary and go-nuts psychotic, Black Swan is, by any measure, a tour de force. It grabs you in from the first moment, a dream sequence ballet filmed with spinning camera and visceral sound effects and blaring classical music, establishing with force a world in which frailty and strength must exist within the same dancer, and where the only thing between grace and the breaking point are a pair of thin silk shoes. A highly competitive ballet company may seem an odd location for the director of muscular, masculine films like The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream, but Aronofsky brings all of his obsessions here, from the intersection of the physical body and art to parental relationships with the power to destroy. He's also made a damn effective horror movie, and wrung a career-best performance from Natalie Portman. The list of superlatives here could well go on forever.
If you've seen the spectacular trailer you may worry you've seen too much, but Black Swan is pretty difficult to spoil. The story is what you already know-- Portman's Nina is a ballerina at a New York City ballet company who's struggled for years to get recognition, egged on by her pushy mom (Barbara Hershey) whose own ballet dreams never made it far, and consistently diminished by the company's director Tomas (Vincent Cassel), who sneers at Nina as often as he praises her. She's cast as the lead dancer in Swan Lake, which is a double role-- the virginal, doomed White Swan, and the vicious and manipulative Black Swan. Nina's got the White Swan nailed, but her shy demeanor and obsession with perfection keep the Black Swan's sexual and violent edginess just out of reach.
Determined to make it work, Nina tries all kinds of things to get in touch with her inner Black Swan, from allowing Tomas to seduce her to spending a wild night with new ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis), who is as free-spirited as Nina is repressed. All the while Nina experiences some weird stuff, from seeing her own face in that of strangers to a persistent rash on her shoulder blades that looks all the world like a sprouting wing. Things get weirder as the Swan Lake debut grows nearer, and it's less a question of how Nina will be able to embody the Black Swan than how much a toll it will take on a sheltered, fragile girl who has lived her life in New York City but knows no world outside of ballet.
That's the plot of Black Swan but the brilliance emerges in Aronofsky's direction, tackling both Hitchcockian tension, Cronenbergian body horror and Grand Guignol reveling in the bloody and the extreme. You're invited to laugh sometimes, as Nina hallucinates a blood-soaked knife in her hands, or discovers her ever-present mom in the room in an, er, intimate moment. But for all the moments of fantasy and shocking horror, Nina's descent into madness and struggle to break free from her stifling childhood feels quite real; Portman sells every inch of the character, and makes a convincing ballerina to boot, but Aronofsky and his writers (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin) brilliantly balance the escalating horror and the plight of a real character struggling with her grip on reality. Portman is in nearly every frame but the rest of the cast is up to her level, particularly an unhinged Winona Ryder as the recently deposed veteran ballerina, and Hershey, who is practically a villain herself as the mother who lives life entirely through her infantilized daughter.
With Aronofsky as the orchestrator every element of the filmmaking together masterfully, from Clint Mansell's original score combined with Tchaikovsky's original Swan Lake music to Matthew Libatique's gorgeous visuals and Andrew Weisblum's deliberately jarring edits. There's so much to praise and analyze that I'm not sure I, or anyone, can properly review it until I see it again. And even though Black Swan is a deliberately small-scale story, with none of the cultural statements of Requiem for a Dream or emotional ballast of The Wrestler, it is a stunner all the same.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.