Thursday, December 9, 2010

Portman spreads her wings in 'Black Swan'

Director Darren Aronofsky's latest is at its best when its wild, furious and flirting with incoherence.
Black Swan begins with Natalie Portman - as ballerina Nina Sayers - dancing in a dream. It doesn't take long for an ominous-looking figure to invade Nina's sleep, thereby establishing the strategy that increasingly will dominate director Darren Aronofsky's arty thrill ride of a movie: Sensation will trump sense, and the movie's commitment to overstatement will be frenzied and brazen -- even intrusive.

Say this: Black Swan has a pulse, a feeling of agitated, intoxicating brilliance. Part thriller, part horror movie and part trippy exploration of the clash between reality and mad vision, Black Swan nonetheless is all of a piece.

In the world of ballet, Aronofsky has found an environment that allows him to move beyond the muddled excesses of The Fountain and the sweat-stained realism of The Wrestler. Black Swan is a movie about performance: Portman's, the main character's and, ultimately, Aronofsky's. It's almost as if the movie wants to merge all three in an act of furious consummation.

The story is relatively simple. Portman's Nina dreams of dancing the lead role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, a ballet that tells the story of a princess trapped in the body of a swan. To achieve liberation, the princess must win the heart of a prince. But a black swan also vies for the prince's affections. The same dancer typically dances the roles of the black and white swans.

Portman's Nina has dancing chops, but her repressed sexuality keeps her from fully emerging as the Black Swan. A tyrannical ballet master (Vincent Cassel) goads and bullies Nina toward sexual liberation, telling her that she must "let go'' in order to achieve total command of the role.

This is no easy task. Nina can't quite cross the threshold into womanhood. She shares an apartment with her domineering and sometimes resentful mother (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a room full of stuffed animals, not the most subtle of clues but still weirdly effective.

More than a gloss on Freudian themes, Black Swan is a balls-to-the-wall display of cinematic showmanship. Nervous to the point of impatience, Aronofsky's hand-held cameras move toward a finale in which the director searches for a dark and beautiful triumph. Does he find it? You'll have to judge for yourself.

Despite obvious differences, Black Swan covers some of the same ground as The Wrestler. Aronofsky's interested in the merging of personality and role in fulfilling acts of sacrifice. And just as The Wrestler introduces us to the grubby, locker rooms and physical torments of second-tier wrestling, Black Swan exposes us to the pain involved in preparing to dance.

Similarities, yes, but Black Swan plays to Aronofsky's strengths in ways that prove more invigorating than anything in The Wrestler. Aronofsky gives full vent to Nina's stark hallucinations, sexual fantasies, looming fears and acts of self-mutilation. He also uses the world of ballet to create an atmosphere in which technique ultimately means nothing without risk.

Portman reportedly did a lot of her own dancing, but it doesn't take long to notice that a fair amount of Black Swan's dance sequences have been shot from the waist up. This is not to say that Portman's performance is in any way a cheat. She's entirely convincing as a ballerina who's being buffeted by forces she believes to be beyond her control. She's an Alice in a frightening ballet Wonderland.

Some of the images created by cinematographer Matthew Libatique are truly amazing. The sight of Portman dressed as the Black Swan and strutting imperiously across the stage evokes memories of Norma Desmond, the character Gloria Swanson played in Sunset Boulevard. It's a hyper-theatrical immersion in character that celebrates both daring and delusion.

Aronofsky's additional casting is quite good. Hershey makes a convincing monster mom, a woman who sacrificed her own ballet career to raise her daughter. Cassel nicely fills the outlines of a role that's geared toward arrogance and intimidation.

Mila Kunis manages to present the most recognizably human face in a drama in which nearly everyone seems to be wearing a mask of some sort. As Lily, a rival ballerina, Kunis is able almost to sound natural in an environment dominated by artifice.

Winona Ryder, shows up as a fading ballet star who falls into a suicidal depression when she's no longer fit to dance the great roles; she's an inspiration for Nina, as well as a warning.

My reaction to Black Swan varied as the movie danced its way through multiple genres. At times, I found it dizzying and compelling. At other times, I thought it was much ado about far too little. Some of the movie's "horror" ploys struck me as embarrassingly garish. But even when Black Swan flirted with incoherence, I admired its dark showmanship.

Aronofsky isn't telling a great or even novel story, and he certainly owes a major debt to Tchaikovsky, whose music helps establish an air of fretful anticipation. But like a dancer looking for perfect synchronization with a great piece of music, Aronofsky's clearly attempting to fly. When he does, Black Swan soars.

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