Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”
I usually try to limit the reviews I collect to those of local productions, but “Black Swan” – a film which explores the world of professional ballet – seems ripe for contemplation. Pair it with the recent scandal of NY Times’ Alastair Macauley criticizing two ballet dancers for being fat, and the film’s paranoia and self-mutilation becomes even more timely. Read on for excerpts from a variety of reviews, and click on the authors’ names for the full review.
One of the pleasures of “Black Swan” is its lack of reverence toward the rarefied world of ballet, which to outsiders can look as lively as a crypt. Mr. Aronofsky makes this world (or his version of it) exciting partly by pulling back the velvet curtains and showing you the sacrifices and crushingly hard work that goes into creating beautiful dances. Nina doesn’t just pirouette prettily, she also cracks her damaged toes (the sound design picking up every crackle and crunch) and sticks her fingers down her throat to vomit up her food. Mostly, though, she trains hard, hammering her toe shoes into floor much as Jake La Motta pounded his fists into flesh. She’s a contender, but also a martyr to her art.
…It’s easy to read “Black Swan” as a gloss on the artistic pursuit of the ideal. But take another look, and you see that Mr. Aronofsky is simultaneously telling that story straight, playing with the suffering-artist stereotype and having his nasty way with Nina, burdening her with trippy psychodrama and letting her run wild in a sexcapade that will soon be in heavy rotation on the Web. The screenplay, by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin, invites pop-psychological interpretations about women who self-mutilate while striving for their perfect selves, a description that seems to fit Nina. But such a reading only flattens a film that from scene to scene is deadly serious, downright goofy and by turns shocking, funny and touching.
…director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”) fashions an excellent, thoughtful work of art with the giddy urgency of a slasher movie. Using a handheld camera, Aronofsky shoots intense, intimate close-ups that hold the characters in a clinch. In tightly framed shots of Nina performing, we don’t see her dancing so much as her absorption in it — the concentration of a professional who has become almost selfless. As the camera moves acrobatically through the performance, we experience Nina’s ecstatic abandon. And when her grip on reality loosens, Aronofsky’s camera recoils in horror along with his heroine.
Portman’s performance as the psychologically disintegrating dancer is beyond praise. Her worry, guilt and grief are so potent they’re nearly unbearable. Nina’s not all that articulate, which makes Portman’s accomplishment all the more impressive. She has to communicate volumes through expression alone, and she carries it off brilliantly.
Everything in “Black Swan” is designed to put us on edge, right where Nina is. There’s her fragile body, which seems to be sprouting rashes and sores. There’s a startling sound design that incorporates effects where there couldn’t possibly be any — Winona Ryder, who is smashing as a washed-up dancer, shows up at a party accompanied by a noise that sounds like hundreds of cellos being pulverized. There’s the color palette, with Nina nearly always in white and everyone else in black, until she starts ominously donning black, too. And there’s the stylized acting, which is just unreal enough to remind us we’re seeing people as Nina thinks they are, not as they really are.
Not since “Shine” have I seen a movie so enthusiastically mud-wrestle with lugubrious orchestral classics: Tchaikovsky thunders on the soundtrack as Aronofsky’s camera stays tight in on the dancers’ spinning heads and limpid limbs. Aronofsky’s approach to ballet is like George Lucas’s approach to space combat: even if you wouldn’t hear those loud wooshes in real life, they sure make for some exciting cinema.
Have you seen “Black Swan?” If so, what did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.