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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

BLACK SWAN -- DVD review by porfle

Whoever thought somebody could make a movie that had the potential to turn horror fans into ballet enthusiasts?  The intoxicating BLACK SWAN (2010) may be about ballet, but it isn't some wispy emotional journey or bittersweet tale of the heart.  We're talking full-blooded, high-class nightmare stuff here, the kind of thing the Crypt Keeper might introduce while wearing a tux.

Director Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, PI) wanted to tell a story about one person's dual natures in conflict, with a chance viewing of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" providing the ideal catalyst.  In it, a princess who has been turned into a white swan can only be cured by love, but her hopes are dashed when a handsome hunter is seduced by her evil twin, the black swan. 

In Aronofsky's film, aspiring dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) yearns for this dual lead in a new production of "Swan Lake" although the arrogant, manipulative director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, SHEITAN), considers her too sheltered and "frigid" to fully embody the Black Swan.  Another dancer, the exotic Lily (Mila Kunis), seems willing to help Nina break out of her shell--and get in touch with her dark side--until it becomes apparent that she's actually working against her while trying to seduce the director into giving her the role.

Nina lives with her domineering, eccentric mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer trying to live vicariously through her daughter.  Their scenes together are odd and disturbing, and it soon becomes clear why Nina is so screwed-up.  Whenever Nina begins to experience pleasure of any kind, especially of a sexual nature, "Mother" is always there to extinguish it.  Thus, Erica's presence is just as smothering and repressive as that of Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO, and almost as enigmatic--as we learn more about Nina's deteriorating mental state, it's uncertain whether or not Erica actually even exists.   

BLACK SWAN takes us behind the beauty and grace of ballet to emphasize its arduous physicality, discipline, and pain, along with the fiercely competitive nature of its dancers.  From the start, the film is captivatingly visual and involving as we quickly get caught up in Nina's never-ending obsession from her point of view. 

We first see her as she awakens from a dream in which she's performing onstage, but she's never truly awake.  Her senses are heightened and distorted, her sensations brittle and urgent.  The handheld camera follows her intimately as she walks or stays tight on her face (establishing shots are rare), while those around her are often heard in brief snippets and furtive whispers.  The effect is disorienting and we never feel as though we're just passively observing her actions, but are right there inside her head the whole time.

Because of this, we're never really sure what's real and what isn't.  The airy music of a rehearsal hall echoes constantly through her mind while she struggles to make sense of the increasingly bizarre images that keep twisting her perception of reality.  Gradually, her dreamlike state veers into nightmare territory when her own body begins to rebel against her, leading to scenes of such shudder-inducing "body horror" that it seems at times as though David Cronenberg is at the helm.  As Nina's dark side emerges, we witness a number of other shocking incidents which earn BLACK SWAN a spot in the upper echelons of the horror genre.

"I've never seen you lose yourself" Nina's director chides during a rehearsal of the Black Swan's dance, but Natalie Portman truly loses herself in this juicy role.  It's exhilarating to see her cast off the dreck of that awful dialogue she struggled to emote in REVENGE OF THE SITH and deliver such an intense, exhausting performance. 

Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and especially Barbara Hershey provide great support, with Winona Ryder eerily effective in her scenes as the ballet company's washed-up former star.  For guys who quiver at the thought of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis making out, their frantic lesbian scene will probably be the equivalent of the "stargate sequence" from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

The DVD from 20th-Century Fox is widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English, French, and Spanish.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  A three-part featurette, "Metamorphosis", looks at the film's direction, acting, and special effects.  The Blu-Ray contains additional extras.

Dazzling and disturbing, BLACK SWAN is just the right mixture of ballet and shattering, gibbering schizophrenia.  You don't just watch the story unfold, but are drawn deeper and deeper into one of the most frightening descents into madness ever put on the screen.

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