9/10 (A little restraint would have gone a long way)
This was quite nearly a masterpiece. Even though falling short, it was still my second favorite film of Aronofsky’s, which is saying a lot since I believe “Requiem for a Dream” to be one of the most perfect films ever made. And it was still the best film I’ve seen all year from a relatively poor 2010 class. And it serves as proof that Aronofsky is one of the best directors working today.
The story, set in the high art ballet world of NYC, is essentially the chronicle of a nervous breakdown that results in psychotic break from reality. While admittedly not a very groundbreaking subject, what makes it great is the creativity of the story-telling, weaving the victim’s unraveling with the mythological framework behind her next ballet production of Swan Lake, in which she has been selected as the lead. So her breaking under the pressure is simultaneously bound up with the inner search for her id, which she desperately needs in order to be able to fully inhabit the role of the dark and sexual Black Swan.
Natalie Portman is simply astonishing in this role. I had recognized her as a fine actress before, and I had hoped to see her do something truly impressive, but I had quietly suspected she didn’t have it in her. Honestly, she seemed too much like her character in this movie: cold and emotionless albeit technically perfect. . . a sterile beauty. I am happy to say that I was wrong on that account. This performance ranks ahead of her first (and before now best) role as a wannabe child assassin in Luc Besson’s “The Professional,” and it ranks up with Nicole Kidman’s turn in “Dogville” as the best female performance I have ever seen.
Part of the reason that Portman’s performance is so impressive is the entire story-within-a-story motif that is going on in the movie. She is playing a girl who is struggling to play a character, and is able to depict incredibly well the inner turmoil that her character Nina suffers during the endeavor. Actually, the acting is terrific across the board, with Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey turning in wonderful performances. Hershey particularly deserves an Oscar for her performance of an overbearing mother who would prefer to smother her daughter into obscurity instead of risk her getting hurt (if the “Academy” can see fit to pull their heads out of their asses for a change).
As I implied above, the movie does have its flaws. To put it plainly, there’s too much going on, both in the story and in some of the directorial choices. Aronofsky would have done himself better by holding back a little. As it is, we have the mother/daughter dynamic, which starts the movie as an intriguing psychological study inside a dysfunctional household. Then there’s the competitive backstage drama of the ballet production, which provides ample opportunity for exploration. Then there’s the sexual liberation of Portman’s Nina, which is a requisite for the completion of the ballet production and movie finale. And pervading all of this is Nina’s slow disintegration into the void of psychosis. Any one or two of these ideas together would have made for a fantastic film, but Aronofsky stumbles in trying to juggle all of them at one time.
There are also certain scenes that are just too much. Aronofsky too often transgresses the boundary between tasteful suspense thriller and campy horror flick. (Spoilers) It takes the form of someone stabbing herself ten times in the cheek with a letter opener, or Nina’s evil twin talking to her in the mirror, or Nina’s legs suddenly bending backwards to simulate birdlegs in her transformation to the Black Swan. (I’m assuming that Aronofsky wasn’t going for chuckles in the theater, which is definitely what he got from us. And if he was going for them, I wish he hadn’t.) These are the most egregious examples of things that would have been much better hinted at and not shown (e.g., perhaps having the lady stab herself just two times instead of ten).
While not relevant to the movie or my main criticisms of it, one of the least believable parts was when Nina skeptically decides to take her director up on his advice that she touch herself. Before five seconds have passed in this experiment she has eagerly flipped over and started humping her hand hardcore. It’s not that I’m a prude and would prefer not to see Natalie Portman’s shapely buttocks flexing as she vigorously masturbates herself; it’s just that it’s not quite the reaction I would expect from a frigid and uptight mama´s girl. I would at least expect her to need a minute or two “warm-up” before just flipping over and going at it.
These flaws would conspire for a 7 or 8 rating under normal circumstances, but Portman’s performance, and even Hershey’s, help relift it to the lofty heights of the 9s and 10s. If you want to witness two future legends (Aronofsky and Portman) in the absolute primes of their careers, you cannot miss this movie.
27 December 2010