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Amazing grace: Black Swan

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Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a messy masterpiece. Like Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, it's one of those films that will force viewers to either reject it outright or allow it, however reluctantly, to burrow into the brain and remain there for days, weeks, months on end. It's a character study writ large, a juicy melodrama operating at a fever pitch. And at its center is Natalie Portman in an astonishing performance that surpasses even her work in such films as Closer and V for Vendetta. Portman's cast as Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose methods involve clockwork precision but leave little room for true passion. Nevertheless, her director (Vincent Cassel) decides to take a chance by casting her in the lead role of his production of Swan Lake. But in true All About Eve fashion, just as she replaced an aging star (a knockout bit by Winona Ryder), she fears being usurped by a sexy troupe newcomer (Mila Kunis). Meanwhile, the home situation is equally strained, given the fanatical devotion of her mother (an excellent Barbara Hershey, in a twist on Piper Laurie's mad mom from Carrie). Is Nina strong enough to withstand myriad challenges, or is she on the verge of cracking up? The answers are all there, but the film is complex enough to leave wiggle room for any theories. Examining the process of suffering for one's art in a strikingly unique manner, this psychosexual thriller is by turns frightening, sensual, humorous and tragic. It's a galvanizing picture that's simultaneously elegant and coarse — like its protagonist, it manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

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