BEST PICTURE, ACTRESS, DIRECTOR, FILM EDITING, CINEMATOGRAPHY:
I would go to the ballet all the time if it was this cool!
2008's The Wrestler was a huge stylistic left turn in director Darren Aronofsky's work. It moved abruptly away from the fantastical, painterly style he and cinematographer Matthew Libatique employed to weird effect in 2006's sci-fi freakout The Fountain, to a shaggy, edgy but still considered kind of alt-naturalism for his tale of a down-and-out ring-jockey. It was a surprising turn, a move from arch, high style to a thoroughly American kind of social realism, imperfect and doc-like but with a through line of attention-seeking, quietly showy style: the perfect voice with which to tell the thoroughly American tale of the wrestler's latter days.
It's to that territory that Aronofsky returns in Black Swan, which sees him reunite with Libatique for their take on the ballet Swan Lake. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, the recently promoted prima ballerina who risks disintegration as she struggles with the transformation she must endure to change from the perfect, virginal and pure White swan to the vicious, powerful Black. As she struggles to learn the piece she must deal with her anxiety at having replaced her idol and with the unwanted attention of another young dancer, as well as the increasing fragility of reality and betrayal by her own body.
Black Swan is a sister-piece to The Wrestler, a stylistic and thematic companion told in the same rough and tumble stylistic voice but with a pleasantly goose-bumpy dose of psychedelic horror movie melodrama… juice thrown into the mix.
Portman is spectacular as the increasingly friable, driven young performer with mother issues, as is Mila Kunis as her charming - and possibly evil - understudy. The whole thing is pitched at an incredibly high dudgeon, dark and goofy and risky and very old-fashioned. What makes it work, though, what keeps it from flying away into crazy experiment-land, is that the whole thing is rooted in one character, and it is from that character and Portman's performance that all else in the film flows. Whether it's true-ish or real-ish doesn't matter in the slightest, any more than it did inThe Wrestler. Aronofsky is working in fable mode, here, telling small stories of personal risk, of transformation and art, and doing so at an incredibly impressive level of skill. Black Swan is weird, and small in a great way and very, very good.