CAPSULE: An ingénue ballerina has to dance as if she has a corrupt and worldly side she does not really have in a production of "Swan Lake". At the same time she has this challenge there may be plots against her to steal her coveted role. Is the pressure she feels warping her psychologically or is the threat real? Darren Aronofsky borrows from David Cronenberg in this surreal view of the high-pressure realm of professional ballet. The film is strange and beautiful to look at, but it also treads the melodramatic edge of a horrific surrealism. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
In the world of classical ballet little is what it really seems to the audience. To balance en pointe, rising up and balancing ones entire weight the tips of ones toes seems light, graceful, and even slyph-like. In fact, it is crushingly painful on the toes. The life of a ballerina in an elite ballet company looks as light as a dream, but it is a nightmare of hard work and stiff competition. To Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) the problems may go beyond the artistic achievement. The dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" is so coveted that people might do anything to get it. Nina suspects there are conspiracies against her. Are they real or imagined? The former star of the company, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is leaving, though not entirely gracefully, she seems to blame Nina. Then there is the aggressive Lily (Mila Kunis), ready to push out Nina given the slightest opening. More pressure comes from the creative director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell, who played the lazy son in EASTERN PROMISES). Finally there is Nina's mother Erica (Barbara Hershey looking like a victim of too many face lifts) herself a former ballerina. Erica's demands on Nina's career the daughter can never hope to fulfill, but who is more than willing to dominate her daughter and force her daughter to those goals.
Nina is young and fresh and beautiful. It is a quality that helps her play the good White Swan. But Thomas does not think that Nina can do the dark Black Swan role. It would be like casting Kiera Knightly as Rosa Kleb. The role of the Black Swan does not call for young and fresh. Thomas wants Nina to give herself a sexual awakening that will be reflected in her darker performance. His interest may not be carnal, but he thinks she needs to be more sexually experienced to dance the role.
There have been films before that have shown the demands of ballet. In particular there was THE RED SHOES (1948)--to which this film pays tribute--and THE TURNING POINT (1977). But what we see here we have not seen on the screen before. The world of the ballet company has always seemed a little pristine and rarified. It hardly seems to be a setting for a thriller with horrific overtones, though this film does and so did THE RED SHOES. Aronofsky shows us the pain behind the performance, physical and psychological. We see Nina's skin, toenails, and even her eyes rebelling at the demands of the art. At times the physical effects are even a little revolting and reminiscent of David Cronenberg's THE FLY.
It might have been more interesting to build the film around a less familiar ballet. Even Thomas, the creative director, seems at first bored at the prospect of re-doing "Swan Lake". But in the real world what other ballets does the public generally know? Still the touch having every music box and every cell phone playing the music of "Swan Lake" is just a bit much. Aronofsky builds the tension slowly but by the third act the tension is real enough.
This movie is an experience that is constantly transforming into something unexpected. Just as Nina needs both a light and dark side and needs to go from one to another, so does Aronofsky. A theme that runs through his work is the dark undercurrents of things that seem innocent. But he is more subtle with it---and hence more credible--than a David Lynch. I rate BLACK SWAN a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0947798/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/black_swan_2010/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper