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Black Swan
The Black Swan
Reviewer: Richard Tara
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo

Reviewer's Note: If this movie had been made in the 1950' or even the early 60's, it would have been in Black and White and classified as a horror drama along with the Cat People, the Cult of Cobra, and even Lon Chaney, Jr's The Werewolf and others. But now?  Well, color and famous stars and studio marketing budgets make a big difference.

The gist of this story is about a deranged young woman Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) with overactive neuro-erotic imagination.  She looks and behaves frigid but underneath there is a torrent of passion about to explode.  All she needs is to meet her anti-matter counterpart in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis), a dark manipulative ballerina who stops at nothing to become the prima ballerina. Nina, the young ballerina, lives and is fiercely protected by her doting stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who gave up her promising ballet career when she became pregnant with her.

As the movie unfolds, Nina is auditioning for the title role in Swan Lake at a major New York City Ballet company.  The Prima Ballerina of the company, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), has been forced into early retirement – Ballerina's have such short life spans- and the ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new talent to replace the fading star.  

Nina is anxious to get the lead and she even makes a failed sexual advance to the director Thomas Leroy.  Eventually, Thomas, somewhat reluctantly, gives her the lead. In Swan Lake, the ballerina has to play the good and the evil swans.  While Nina excels at the role of the naive White Swan, she has difficulty playing the evil twin. That all changes when Lily befriends her.  Lily is sexually overactive and a perfect Black Swan.  Nina is, subconsciously, so attracted to Lily that she even has sexual fantasies of sleeping with her while Lily is plotting to undermine her confidence to get the role herself.  Eventually, Nina goes through a metamorphosis that literally transforms her into the wicked Black Swan and dances the ultimate performance of her life in the final scenes of the famous ballet. Nina transcends to the highest levels of dancing as the Black Swan. She magically entrances the audience and the doubting director and achieves the title of “Perfect.”   The success and duality of her nature has a price and she pays for it, dearly, at the end.

Natalie Portman as Nina delivers a fine performance as the tormented ballerina who is literally forced by her mother to live the life of a child.  Her bedroom is like that of a six year old and her mother treats her like a toddler.  The mother's guilt is imposing.  She feels that her daughter has an obligation to her to fulfill her fantasy by becoming a super ballerina. 

Beside Nina, and Thomas, the other character of importance in the movie is the recurring appearance of Lily, alternately as a foe and then a lover.   Lily is a good ballerina but not talented enough for the role, so she tries to plot her way to the top. Unwittingly, Lily actually succeeds in propelling Natalie Portman in her role as the Black Swan by boosting her evil side through her manipulation.

Natalie Portman Excels strongly as the young vulnerable and befuddled girl who is at the brink of stardom and has yet to come to terms with her wanton and hidden sexuality, which transforms into violent behavior. This psychosis spells her final doom.

The acting was superb.  I will give an above average grade for the directing by Darren Aronofsky,  But think of it; the plot is so outlandishly unreal that it ranks with the twaddle one sees on CSI series or the news stories on Fox News.  Against weak competition, Natalie Portman won the Academy award for this movie.  One wonders why this movie and the actors should be put on a par with stories about real heroes and human dramas such as 127 Hours and The King's Speech. 

We still give the movie three stars.  It has strong lesbian sexual scenes and may not be suitable for young audiences.


Black Swan
The Black Swan
Reviewer: Joanne Ross
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo

Darren Aronofsky's magnificent Black Swan feels and plays more like an exquisitely choreographed “cinematic ballet” than it does a conventional film. The director has found in the literal and symbolic story of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake the perfect context to depict the tragic unraveling of a psychologically fragile dancer in the pressure-cooker world of ballet, exploring themes of unfettered narcissism, the pursuit of perfection, self-harm, competition and rivalry, impossible ideals, and developmental arrest.

It's the hope of every aspiring ballerina – to dance the coveted Odette/Odile roles in Swan Lake. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is no exception. The young dancer in the corps de ballet of an unnamed New York ballet company literally dreams about it. With principal dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) set to retire, a new soloist is needed for the company's new interpretation of the classic ballet.

The ballet tells the literal story of the innocent princess Odette who is transformed into a white swan by the sorcerer Rothbart. She meets Siegfried whose love is the only thing that can lift Rothbart's curse. Unfortunately, Siegfried is deceived by the evil Odile, the black swan, masquerading as Odette. His seduction seals Odette's fate. On a symbolic level, it doesn't take a psychiatrist to understand these characters represent the two faces of an individual: the light and the dark selves, the innocent and the knowing, and the virgin and the siren.

Dancing Odette and Odile is no cakewalk. The characters which are typically performed by the same individual, are taxing on even the most talented and resilient of dancers. The mentally wobbly Nina wins the dual role, but struggles to keep a grip on her sanity under the weight of rehearsals, self-obsession, and the need for perfection. Company director/choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) knows she can play Odette to perfection, but doubts Nina has the womanly oomph to portray Odile. If Nina can't play Odile, Thomas' ballet will lack the dramatic conflict and tension between opposites needed to mesmerize the audience.

The arrival of new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) adds to the turmoil. Lily's natural ability to embody Odile – noted and appreciated by Thomas – threatens Nina. The two dancer's unusual friendship/rivalry leads Nina into the adult world, where she explores her the darker, more self-destructive side (her Odile self). She indulges in alcohol, pills, guys, sex – and the illicit thrill of staying out past bedtime to irritate her mother.

Aronofsky conceives Nina as a child-woman (her Odette self) trapped in perpetual adolescence. Contriving to keep her there is her grasping mother Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey) with whom she still lives. Nina's bedroom looks like that of a little girl, complete with frilly bedspread and pillows, stuffed animals, and a music box with – what else – a pink, plastic ballerina twirling to the tinkling sounds of the Swan Lake theme. Nina's fear of maturity, with all it implies, is so painful as to be avoided at all costs that she retreats into narcissism, perfectionism, self-obsession, scratching herself raw, and inducing vomiting, to avoid that inevitable rite-of-passage called womanhood.

Further compounding her fear is the fate of the broken and discarded Beth, who becomes the mirror in which Nina sees her future reflected.

Portman represents the beating heart of Black Swan. She breathes life into the vulnerable Nina with a tour de force performance that reaches through the screen and grabs the audience by the throat. As Nina cracks, she experiences visual and auditory hallucinations that blur the line between the real and the factitious. It's impossible for me not to be affected by her psychic free fall.

Portman isn't alone in delivering an exceptional performance. Kunis is perfectly cast as Lily, the sensual, free-spirit who is as fluid and sexually aware as Nina is unbending and innocent. Cassel's Thomas is a sexually manipulative Svengali, so determined to wrest a performance out of Nina that he resorts to cold-blooded seduction to do it. And Hershey portrays with conviction a disappointed woman trying to recapture her thwarted dancing ambitions through her unbalanced daughter.

And pulling it all together is Aronofsky who achieves an almost perfect coordination of story, acting, dizzying and electrifying photography, and an inspired soundtrack (consisting of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's and original music by Clint Mansell), giving us one of the best films of 2010, and arguably, the most exhilarating of them all.

Professional dancers tend to be motivated by their love of dance. Self-expression, the joy of movement, and the development of their artistry – these are the rewards they seek. What drives Nina? She seems to find no joy or pleasure in dance. Dancing for her is a whip she uses to lash herself. So what does she want, really? “To be perfect,” she says. In the end, she realizes her goal. She becomes not an artist, but a martyr to the cause of perfection.*-JR