PORTMAN SOARS IN “BLACK SWAN”

The Oscar buzz has begun in Hollywood, and one film that seems to be on everyone’s short list for a best-picture nomination is “Black Swan,” a taut psychological thriller set against the background of the gruelingly competitive world of New York City ballet and starring Academy Award nominee Natalie Portman, who turns in an absolutely brilliant performance.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, an aspiring ballerina dancing in a company directed by the brutally demanding Tomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), who announces that the opening program for the season is going to be a reworked version of the classic “Swan Lake.” Much to the surprise of everyone in the company, Leroy also announces that Beth Mcintyre (Winona Ryder), the perennial star, will not be dancing the coveted part of the Swan Queen and that the role is up for grabs.

Naturally Nina desperately wants the part, but during her audition, a brash new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) barges into the studio and upsets Nina’s rhythm. Although Nina is able to dance the part of the White Swan to perfection, Leroy tells her that her innate frigidity robs her of the necessary sexuality to be effective as the black swan. Nina is so devastated by his criticism that she goes home and practices the part until she injures her toe.

On the following day, Nina approaches Leroy and tells him that she thinks she now has  the confidence to play both roles, but he says he has chosen someone else for the part. When Nina checks out the list for assigned parts, however, she learns to her surprise that the role is actually hers.

While all of this is occurring, the subplot involving Beth takes a tragic turn. Leroy throws a huge party for the dual purpose of introducing Nina as the Swan Queen and making Beth’s retirement official. Beth, who is very upset by the developments and the obvious end of her career, confronts Leroy after the party, but he brushes her off and takes Nina  back to his home, where he gives her some advice on how to get in touch with her sexuality.

In the meantime, Beth is hospitalized as the result of a horrible accident, and when Nina goes to visit her, she is shocked by the seriousness of Beth’s injuries. It’s obvious that Beth will never dance again, and this knowledge weighs heavily on Nina’s mind.

At his point in the film, Lily becomes a very important character. When she sees that the pressure of the imminent show is playing havoc with Nina’s emotions, she convinces Nina to go out with her and have some fun. Among other things, this involves taking drugs, and although Nina declines at first, she finally caves into Lily’s pressure, and by late in the evening she is completely out of it.

Nina correctly suspects that Lily wants to replace her as the Swan Queen, and the rest of the film is a fascinating combination of art and horror as Nina desperately struggles to maintain a balance between delusion and reality. The ensuing scenes will keep you  guessing up until the final breathtaking conclusion that will leave you emotionally exhausted.

Now when I first began reading about this film, I was extremely skeptical that a movie about ballet could also be an effective thriller, but I am here to tell you that it transcends probability by being at once beautiful and terrifying. From the time Nina’s mother, superbly portrayed by Barbara Hershey, notices some mysterious scratches on Nina’s back, the suspense in the movie builds slowly but steadily until Nina’s character evolves into a fascinating enigma.

Portman, who looks almost concentration-camp thin in the film, subjected herself to an incredibly rigorous training regimen in order to make the movie. In addition to training for almost eight hours each day, it also included living on very little more than carrots and almonds. Portman, who has taken dance lessons since she was 4 years old, had studied ballet before accepting the role of Nina, and she does much her own dancing in the film, but the part calls for much more than dancing because Nina is a very complex and disturbed character. Portman holds a degree in psychology from Harvard University, and in a recent interview Sheila Roberts asked her to diagnose the character of Nina.

“Well, this was actually a case where something that I did learn in school did translate into something practical which is very, very rare. But it was absolutely a case of obsessive-compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD, and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual — the wrapping of the shoes every day and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads, and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film, you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything, and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis.”

In addition to Portman’s superb performance, complemented nicely by those of Hershey, Ryder, Cassell, and Kunis, the film resonates from beginning to end with the beautifully haunting music from Swan Lake. Under the stellar direction of Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”), much of the movie effectively captures both the dedication and the artistry comprising the world of ballet.

“Black Swan” (I’ll give it that rare score of 10.) definitely is a showcase for the brilliance of Portman, who is every bit as deserving of her recent Golden Globe nomination as she will be of her inevitable Oscar nomination. The best part is that this incredibly talented young woman is only 29 years old, so we can be certain the this film is far from being her swan song.

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