MOVIE REVIEW: Black Swan

BLACK SWAN-- 5 STARS

Mirrors are a funny, simple, and clever invention.  In our real lives, ladies keep them in their purse and they are all over our cars to use with visibility.  In the movies, hundreds of characters have given us some dialogue of their inner thoughts while talking to themselves in one.  They create all kinds of tricks too.  You have the false labyrinths of Inception, the great dual-mirrored hallway scene of Citizen Kane (just past the 4:00 mark of the clip), and it's one of the most overly used horror movie gimmicks (great SNL spoof with Ellen Page)

You even get heroes, like Lone Starr in Spaceballs and Christopher Reeve in Superman II, who inexplicably use these simple panes of glass to reflect some of the most powerful rays of energy possible, but I digress.  In any case, mirrors create the illusion of seeing a duplicate of yourself.  For some, they don't think of the illusion and see a simple view of their physical appearance for mundane purposes like tying a necktie or fixing their hair.  To others, the reflection they see is something more than that.  In their minds, looking in a mirror is a chance to look themselves in the eye as a point of focus.  How many of us have caught ourselves talking to that reflection just like the characters in movies do?  You really have issues if that reflection talks back at you.

To take it even further, looking at that mirror image can be a chance to pause, look past the outside appearance, and stare into one's soul.  From a conscience's standpoint, it's an act of living out that figurative expression and taunt of "I hope you can look at yourself in the mirror."  No matter how serious you're looking into it, from mundane to soul-searching, you either like what you see or you don't.  The real trip and twist comes when you, consciously or unconsciously, choose what you see, don't see, like, and don't like in the mirror.

The daringly original new film Black Swan, from director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler), is the cinematic embodiment of answering that figurative expression and that twist of choosing what you see in the mirror.  It's a twisted psychological thriller where nothing is what it seems, all the way until the credits roll.  The film's slow-boiling pull on you, the audience, builds more and more with a pace and tension that matches the maddening breakdowns of its lead character.

Academy Award nominee and recent Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a determined and tightly-wound New York ballet dancer competing for the lead role of the Swan Queen in a new production of the Tchaikovsky classic Swan Lake.  The part is a dual role that requires playing the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan.  Nina's well-honed and delicate technical prowess as a dancer makes her a perfect choice in the director Thomas Leroy's (French leading man Vincent Cassel) eyes for the White Swan, but he doesn't see the captivating passion in Nina that it takes for the Black Swan.  She is initially passed over for the role, but privately pleads with Thomas and wins the part.

This new-found lead status, the deeply complicated Swan Queen role, and its responsibility creates a building competitive pressure on Nina to achieve perfection from many angles.  She is replacing the bitter and aging former star of the company (a surprising Winona Ryder) who is being pushed into unwanted retirement.  The other active dancers, including the exotic newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), wanted that lead role and see Nina as conniving get it, rather than earning it.  Nina also lives at home with a demanding and repressive mother (long-lost Academy Award nominee Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer who pushes her daughter to be the best without failure or freedom.  All the while, as the Swan Lake premiere nears, she is mercilessly pushed daily in rehearsals by Thomas to find and tap into her inner dark side and the eroticism it takes to play the Black Swan.

That stress from all sides starts to slowly overcome and consume Nina causing her to hallucinate and become increasingly paranoid.  Much of that heightens when she starts to develop a obsessive relationship with the free-spirited Lily, who urges the sheltered and over-focused Nina to let go.  Brought to life with sharp digitally-created visual effects, her increasing hallucinations and nightmares make pictures move, put her face on other people, change reflections, and make her own image slowly turned into something birdlike in subtle, yet disturbing ways.  The more her inner dark side and desire emerges, the stronger and more dramatic the visions and reflections become.  Nina begins to mistake what is real and what is imagined in what she sees. 

In the film, the whole mirror analogy is not just a metaphor, but a huge stylistic theme.  Everywhere you look, Matthew Libatique's darting cinematography has us watching our characters, their facial expressions, and their emotions through the subtle reflections and dual images of makeup mirrors, windows, bathroom mirrors, wall-length ballet studio mirrors, and anything in between.  That intriguing and shifting point-of-view plays off the suggestion of what you see and don't see in one's reflection, to the point where even you wonder if you're looking into those character's souls, thanks to all of those different angles. 

When that style and theme is coupled with the swirling and twirling movements of ballet, the whole look of the film appears to dance right along with its characters.  The cleverly-incorporated visual effects used to create the hallucinations and nightmares add another layer to this incredible visual palette.  Just as your eyes are transfixed, so are your ears.  Cues of Tchaikovsky's powerful music and Clint Mansell's haunting score increase the intensity.  The combined result is as exhilarating as it is disturbing.  You may start the movie rolling your eyes at the world of ballet, but will soon find yourself captivated by the twists and turns that lie at every corner.

All of that technical prowess of style for Black Swan is impressive considering its nowadays-minuscule budget of $12 million.  Still, those elements of the film and the strong direction from Aronofsky could not have worked without a ferocious cast of performers.  Vincent Cassel always plays the villain in his American roles (Ocean's 12 , Eastern Promises), but raises his vehemence as the director without being one-dimensionally sleazy.  Mila Kunis normally ruins every movie she's in (The Book of Eli, Extract), because as soon as she opens her mouth she can't help but sound like her ditsy Jackie Burkhart character from That 70's Show (and to a lesser extent, her Meg Griffin vocals on Family Guy).  It's not the case here.  Her sexiness and sass as the brash bad influence works perfectly to her tone.  Maybe this will break the dark cloud that, after Topher Grace in Predators and Spider-Man 3 and also the last seventeen Ashton Kutcher films (especially Killers), has become, what this reviewer likes to call, "TheThat  70's Show Curse."  

Those performances are a good start, but pale in comparison to the absolutely devoted lead performance of Natalie Portman.  The film never leaves her restless, paranoid point-of-view.  She believably sells the madness, desire, and fear with her acting in Black Swan, but also pulls it off as a dancer.  In a part like this, there was no way Aronofsky could get away with a body double.  Portman and Kunis devoted six months of ballet training for that aspect of their roles and it shows.  Nina is an incredibly complicated role that required Portman to make something beautiful look equally damaged and ugly at the same time.  There has not been a better female performance this year, lead or supporting, not by a long shot.

LESSON #1: COMPETITION CAN CREATE STRESS AND THAT STRESS IS UNHEALTHY-- Whether you're talking about pregame athletic jitters, butterflies before a job interview, or the drive of a job advancement in any given field, competition in all of its forms creates a tremendous amount of stress.  Some people are naturally competitive and are fed and driven by that tension.  For most, however, that stress can become unhealthy and overcome them.  If competition is the nature of your business and you can't handle it, seek a different career choice.  If it's affecting your health and performance, seek help or eliminate the elements that feed into it.

LESSON #2: THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST FOR PERFECTION-- The sayings, figures of speech, and proverbs in every kind of belief system are right.  Nothing and no one is perfect.  Perfection is about more than control.  Those scores you see in figure skating, gymnastics, and spelling tests are cute, but an illusion.  Pushing one's self to achieve that so-called perfection in your life is an impossible journey.  It creates unnecessary pressure and, therefore, see Lesson #1.

LESSON #3: FINDING PASSION IN YOUR CHOSEN ART, CRAFT, OR SKILL-- No matter if you're a lead ballet dancer, the maid or waitress that does those cool napkin and towel folds, or a profession on an episode of Discover Channel's Dirty Jobs, every job has an element of passion.  It's the personal touch of your inner character and extra effort that one puts into their work to go above and beyond the usual job and sets it apart from going through the motions.  Passion is one element that turns something ordinary into something special.  No matter your job, find that passion to make what you do special.

LESSON #4: THE ART OF SEDUCTION-- In Black Swan, there's a lot of seduction on many levels and it's correctly implied that some people have it and some people don't.  Seduction is something for the extroverts and not the introverts.  It is an art of manipulating people.  Not everyone is photogenic enough to "make love to the camera."  Not everyone can sell sand to an Egyptian.  Not everyone can appear effortless in captivating a crowd.  Not everyone can turn on the charm to get what they want.  It's not that it can't be done by everyone, but know your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to seduction.

LESSON #5: LOSING YOURSELF TO MADNESS-- All of the first four lessons feed into this final lesson.  Madness is the breaking point of stress.  It has its origins in a lot of places, be it constant routine, competition, self-confidence, pressure, imperfection, anger, passion, or inadequacy.  It is cardinally important that you avoid taking breaking point of stress to madness.  You do lose yourself to madness and it is extremely hard to correct that course and recover.