Sunday, December 5, 2010

Black Swan - The Exquisite, Tortured Nina Sears

"Our new Swan Queen, the exquisite Nina Sears!"

With these words Thomas (Vincent Cassel) the director of a fictional New York ballet company, introduces his new star to New York society. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a fragile soul. With a quiet, meek manner and desire to please that knows few boundaries, Nina is her own worst enemy.

Black Swan, the latest offering from director Darren Aronofsky, continues to plumb the darkness of the human mind. Nina's casting as the lead in Thomas's 'stripped down and visceral' staging of Swan Lake precipitates emotional turmoil in Nina that threatens to overwhelm her.

At every turn Nina finds herself boxed in. From her home life in a drab Manhattan apartment with her overprotective mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) once a ballerina herself, now living out her fantasies of success through her daughter, to Lily, Nina's rival and polar opposite in the company.

Lily (Mila Kunis), a free spirit from San Francisco, is praised by Thomas for her easy sensuality. "She's not faking it," Thomas says to Nina during practice as they watch Lily's fluid movements. A demanding man or colossal asshole, take your pick, Thomas seems to think the company is his private preserve in which to hunt for choice women. The professional and personal are blurred as Thomas makes clear to Nina that in return for her rise to prominence he expects sexual favours.

But none of these adversaries come close to her most formidable enemy — herself. As Black Swan progresses the 'white' Nina encounters her 'black' twin with increasing frequency. From passing glances on Manhattan streets to the subway, the dark Nina makes herself known.

While Nina's doppelganger menaces her, the demands of the Swan Queen role loom. Thomas knows she has the technical perfection, fragility and grace needed to play the White Swan, but repeatedly questions and denigrates her for a perceived inability to play the Black Swan. In perhaps the most perceptive line in the film Thomas tells her, "the only person standing in your way is you."

Everyone in Nina's professional life — from Thomas to Lily to the other members of the company fail to see just how thorough a job Nina does unleashing the Black Swan within. Pushing herself to achieve perfection Nina is hounded by her mirror image. Black Swan's creepiest moments are the shots of Nina alone with her mirror self (selves?)

The monster within unleashed, Nina moves toward the outer limits of sanity. Her doppelganger begins to change as well. It's Nina one moment and Lily the next; laughing at her, undermining her, waiting in the wings to steal Nina's role.

Black Swan is well worth the ticket price if you enjoy psychological thrillers. Aronofsky's use of mirrors and black & white contrasts give the movie a distinct stylistic flair. Natalie Portman is certainly the strongest performer here, with Vincent Cassel close behind. Both should be Oscar contenders when award season comes around.

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