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Review: ‘Black Swan’

Queen Amidala Goes to the Dark Side

Natalie Portman is having trouble with reality in

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Above: Natalie Portman is having trouble with reality in "Black Swan."


The critics on the KPBS Film Club of the Air discuss "Black Swan."


Darren Aronofsky has come a long way from his no-budget, black and white indie debut "Pi." His latest film, "Black Swan" (opening December 10 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinema and La Jolla Village Theaters) is set in the world of ballet and stars Natalie Portman. You can also listen to our Film Club of the Air discussion of the film.

How do you make "Swan Lake" interesting and exciting to a contemporary movie audience? You turn it into a psychological thriller with the catfighting backstage elements of "All About Eve." At least that's the idea that Darren Aronofsky pitched. Then for added interest, how about having sweet Natalie Portman go to the dark side? Hmm? Sounds even better. But what looks good on paper doesn't always pan out on screen.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel star in "Black Swan."

The story of "Black Swan" involves a ballerina named Nina played by Portman. She desperately wants the lead in the company's new production of "Swan Lake" but that would require getting the current star (Winona Ryder) out of the way. In addition, the director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) wants whoever is cast to play both the White Swan and the evil Black Swan. This is problematic for Nina who has everything needed to play the vulnerable and innocent White Swan, but none of the darkness and sensuality to bring the Black Swan to life. Thomas pushes her, though, and decides to give her a chance. But her happiness at getting the starring role is short-lived. A new, younger, and more free-spirited dancer (Mila Kunis) joins the company and appears to want Nina out of the way.

The drama and tension of "Black Swan" hinges on the conflict between what's real and what Nina might be imagining. This kind of tension has worked well in films as diverse as "Repulsion," "Brazil," "Eraserhead," and even Aronofsky's own films ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream"). But the key to making it work is that the audience has to be kept off balance; we have to be kept guessing as to how crazy our protagonist is or whether what we're seeing is real or an illusion. Sometimes films keep us too off balance as with David Lynch's "Eraserhead" and " Mulholland Dr."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Natalie Portman is a ballerina in "Black Swan."

But "Black Swan" teeters too far in the other direction. It seems too obvious, too early on that Nina is unstable. From the very first scene she is delivered to us as skittish, unbalanced, and troubled. It would have been more interesting to give her more of a descent. We need to start at a point where we believe she is sane and normal. That being said, "Black Swan" still has the power to engage our interest. Portman is a good actress and she makes Nina's passion for the role and drive for perfection very real. She also finds tension in the relationship between Nina and Nina's mother played by Barbara Hershey. Giving a little more to their back-story might have been beneficial. The interdependence of these two women makes for good tension, and I could have used a little more between them.

I have to confess, though, that I pondered how the film might have been with Jessica Harper in the mom role. This would have been pleasing since Harper played the young ballerina in Dario Argento's "Suspiria." If Aronofsky had cast Harper, it would have given the two mind-bending films a fun connection.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Darren Aronofsky directs Natalie Portman in "Black Swan."

"Black Swan" benefits from solid technical credits from clever cutting and dark. lush cinematography to good use of music and impressive production design. Aronofsky also reveals a good eye for behind the scenes details of the ballet world. More of the these backstage elements could have helped because what little we get is wonderful and helps to give the film a realistic backdrop for its tale of madness.

"Black Swan" (rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use) is a film about striving for perfection and the toll that can take on an artist. It's a flawed film with ambitions outside its grasp. Yet I commend Aronofsky for at least setting the bar high and attempting something complex rather than simple. But if you want a genuinely good and slightly unhinged ballet film you have to seek out Michael Powell's "The Red Shoes."

Companion viewing: "Red Shoes," "Repulsion," "Naked Lunch," "Eraserhead," "All About Eve," "All About Evil"

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