By William Wolf


With the extensive buzz about this film, the press screening at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival was predictably jammed. “Black Swan” turned out to deliver as a psychological thriller that takes an audience on a riveting roller coaster ride of emotional and visual intensity. Above all, it has a bravura performance by Natalie Portman, who surely has to be an awards contender. The look of the film is stunning, the Tchaikovsky music is done justice and the ballet dancing is a colorful backdrop to the star’s mental turbulence and resulting occurrences. The overall production design is stunning, as is the direction by Darren Aronofsky, who did “The Wrestler.”

The story concerns Portman as Nina, who has endured the pressure of her manipulative, domineering stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and is wracked by her deep insecurities about succeeding in the highly competitive domain of ballet. With a vision of how he wants to make “Swan Lake” a production with his own stamp, Vincent Cassel as the taskmaster director Thomas Leroy cruelly toys with Nina and challenges her to be fired up enough to play the black swan as a dramatically fierce change from the white swan when the ballet turns to its dark side. Winona Ryder fills the tragic role of Beth, a replaced prima ballerina past her prime.

Nina, whose scratch marks on her back under her shoulder are a sign of her self-mutilation and evidence of her psychological trauma. Mila Kunis plays Lily, a scheming rival who also wants the starring role and Thomas plays her off against Nina to make Nina fight for the opportunity. The drama, scripted by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin based on a story by Heinz, builds relentlessly toward a furious climax.

The game for the audience is figuring out either during the film or in afterthoughts which events are actually happening and which are occurring in the twisted mind of the disturbed Nina, as well as which visual images are accurate or reflections of Nina’s mental distortions. Sexuality plays an important role, as Thomas urges Nina to touch herself to awaken fire within. There is also a sexual episode (real or imagined?) between Nina and Lily.

Apart form the acting skills on display, the film is an eyeful. Although the setting is New York’s Lincoln Center, as captured in outdoor scenes, the actual ballet staging was done at the Performing Arts Center of the State University of New York at Purchase. The dancers in the film were recruited from the Pennsylvania Ballet. The production is lavishly costumed and the choreography by Benjamin Millepied is a movie blend with the main function of being the setting for the story, not a performance of ballet per se. (This is not a film geared to balletomanes—it stands primarily as a psychological thriller.) But Portman trained rigorously for nearly a year and is said to have done 90 per cent of her own dancing.

Beyond the suspense that the film generates, there is the serious side of exposing the immense pressures under which a dancer labors and what that can do to a person. Excellent shots also show the physical toll, such as close-ups of bruised feet and the process of flexing them into shape. But reality is not the dominating force. This is an entertainment designed to deliver a hyper good show for those who like colorful thrillers enhanced by striking acting—and it does.


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