Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle Film Review: Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN—a Thriller that Soars

By John A. McMullen II
Monday January 10, 2011 - 04:36:00 PM

There are a lot of good movies out there right now—“The Fighter,” the Coen Bros. remake of “True Grit,” “The King’s Speech”—BUT there is a cinematic work of art about the rigors and pitfalls of making art that is a must-see. 

If you subscribe to the notion that gripping-and-disturbing is a pinnacle of artistic achievement (Oedipus, Hamlet, most operas, and, uh, Swan Lake), then David Aronofsky is your man: “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke, “Requiem for a Dream” with Ellen Burstyn, and now “BLACK SWAN” with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. 

Ballet is a crazy art— always trying to perfect the form, such a short window for achievement, the hovering of the stage mother, the finicky critics—and wearing a mask of perfection for so long that a personality can crumble behind said mask.  

Ballet is a bitch. Get the form perfect, then let go, they say. How do you let go when you’ve spent years monitoring each posture and gesture in the mirror? 

This story of a pas de deux inside a danseuse’s head uses every verity of this universal art, and puts you in the pointe shoes of our disintegrating terpsichorean heroine. 

We’ve watched Natalie Portman grow from Star Wars princess to hit-man in-training in “The Professional,” and lately a regrettable turn as Anne Boleyn; her role as tortured protégé in “V for Vendetta” was basic training for this role as Nina, our ballerina. For years, I confused Ms. Portman and Winona Ryder; then I wondered when they would be cast together as relatives. Luckily, they held off till this mirror-image casting. Aronofsky double-downs on the look-alikes by casting Barbara Hershey as Nina’s harridan (s)mother. This doppelganger casting by casting director by Aronofsky and his trusted casting director Mary Vernieu is brilliant and essential to the story. 

Mila Kunis, who began her career as neighborhood princess Jackie in TV’s “That 70’s Show,” has done her best work playing a bad girl. Her role here as Lily, the wild girl just in from the San Francisco Ballet, is her filmic highpoint.  

ATTN: “Black Swan” included the hottest female homoerotic scene in R-rated history that I bet arouses all genders! (I was wondering why it wasn’t playing in my little SW PA hometown I visited over the holiday. Now I know.) 

This tight and intricate script by neophyte screenwriter Andres Heinz is based on his original screenplay "The Understudy." It baffles me why he and his co-writers John McLaughlin and Mark Heyman were not nominated for a Golden Globe, as the director, lead actress, supporting actress Kunis, and the film itself have been. 

Heinz enjoys an inside joke by naming our on-the-edge heroine Nina, like Chekhov’s heroine who confused herself with another waterfowl. Every turn is foreshadowed but seldom telegraphed in this Expressionist whodunit, making it all make sense in its breathtaking resolution. 

There is a man among these women—the snotty French dance maestro Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel who has made a career of playing snotty Frenchman. Of course he does that self-serving thing some directors do to loosen up their ingénue. Thomas is the architect of the play, and his efforts to inspire Nina’s performance unsettle her tightly-wound psyche. Her demons are then unleashed by Lily’s influence. The jealousy and competition seethe among the would-be divas. 

New York apartment life, night life, and Lincoln Center Back Stage and On Stage are the background. The choreographer David Millepied (a great name for a choreographer!) provides some challenging moves for our actresses, and dances the Swan Prince himself. Portman, who has danced since the age of four, performs the part exquisitely; she reminds us of the double-talent of Holly Hunter in “The Piano” and Jamie Foxx in “Ray” who were also accomplished pianists in their own right. 

I predict Aronofsky’s paean to Tschaikovsky’s masterpiece will sweep up many little gold statuettes come February 27.