A Perfect Self

December 19, 2010

The intertwining of life and art is often best seen on a canvas or heard over an instrumental in a recording studio.  Often times we hear a performer tell us that their product is a direct reflection of their life.  Rarely do we believe it.  For a character like Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), her product is her dance and her life becomes her dance creating quite the startling product for artistic consumption…and, boy, do we believe it.  In “Black Swan”, an arresting and overwhelming film by Darren Aronofsky (the man who brought us “Requiem for a Dream”), we are introduced to Sayers, a conflicted ballerina on the brink of stardom in New York City.

When cast in the lead role of “Swan Lake,” Nina begins the task of embodying the duality of the Swan Queen, a role that requires her natural innocence combined with a dark sensuality she doesn’t quite understand.  What unravels can only be described as Nina’s twisted journey for perfection and the horrific depths that it leads her to.  Her product, her proof of talent, becomes the sad sacrifice of her sanity.

Portman drives herself to extensive lengths to quietly and eerily give a performance so powerful that it will undoubtedly earn her an Academy Award.  As Nina, Portman gives herself up to dance with as much thought as she utilized in developing her consistently impressive filmography.  Her voice is tiny and her quick breaths while dancing or while overcome with emotion become their own lines of dialogue. The moments when Portman stands trying to catch her breath become the moments where we find her character the most transparent. Paired with an unexpectedly strong Mila Kunis as Lily, her rival and the obvious personification of the Black Swan, the two have a chemistry that vacillates between icy and kinetic.  With Lily’s arrival comes Nina’s downward spiral and her sickness creeps up on viewers with a slow moving ease.  A wild night out between the two then accelerates the film from a safe 5 miles over the speed limit to a dangerous triste with a world Nina never allowed herself to enjoy or create for herself.  Throw in a hypersexual, power-hungry artistic director (Vincent Cassel), a silently envious mother hoping to vicariously finish her career through her daughter’s (played amazingly well by Barbara Hershey) and a prima donna dethroned (Winona Ryder) and you’ve got a cast so strong it could make any director weak.

Cinematically, the film gives a gritty, harsh look to Nina’s world.  What could have easily been glossed over and color enhanced actually became frantic and at moments painful to watch.  The calculated use of mirrors and dim lighting gives the film a horror-genre feel that works well amidst the heavy content.  Subliminal costuming and set aesthetic place the dichotomy of Nina’s purity and Lily’s raucousness at a visual forefront.  It all seems so real but equally so put together.  Aronofsky often chooses to avoid the pretty in favor of the uncomfortable resulting in scenes that feel so authentic its bordelines on awkward.  In addition, Nina’s constantly building hallucinations never depart from the shakiness of her normalcy.  We see what Nina sees and aren’t given a heads up that we may be viewing something beyond the truth.  Therefore, Nina’s world becomes unexpectedly our own and Nina’s desire to differentiate between the truth and the imaginary becomes the conflict of our own interpretation…and It’s scary as fuck.

The film’s conclusion is as beautiful as it is exhausting.  The dance sequence that ends the film is meticulously chaotic, a silly oxymoron to try and deduce if you haven’t seen the film.  The culmination of Aronofsky’s creation packs a large punch and leaves the viewer with a haunting commentary on the quest for perfection and the gruesome extent to which we will give of ourselves to acquire it, regardless of its necessity.  “Black Swan” is hard to describe without cheapening it’s power but the film does go to great lengths to personify the yearning for balance amidst all aspects of ourselves for the sake of an art…the truest art…the art of maintaining.  It is the film’s elegant way of achieving this that makes it one of the year’s best and one of the most artistically adventurous films in recent years.

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