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Film Review

Black Swan

No performing art is so intensely athletic and punishing as ballet. To our eyes the dancers seem to move effortlessly, as if they have somehow broken free from gravity. We rarely see the intense training, will, pain, and often, the injuries, and the psychological pressures. Many appear to be borderline anorexics. Few are great who are not obsessive about the art, including pushing their bodies beyond what nature intended. By 35, most are either so injured and must retire, or their joints just worn out. Ballet, like other demanding athletics, seems to attract obsessive people, perhaps because that quality is necessary to dance well.

Black Swan, a dark story put to film by Darren Aronofsky, whose directing style is often over the top (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) focuses on a dancer struggling to become the lead in Swan Lake. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is obsessive about her dancing, which seems to be her entire life. She practices constantly, with a desperation, sometimes with bloody toes, and begins to lose touch with reality. She lives with her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, who gives Joan Crawford a run for the mother from hell. An early scene with a cake says it all. Nina is still an innocent, sleeping surrounded by her stuffed animals, more than carefully watched over by her mother. The director of the ballet company (presumably the NYC Ballet), played by Vincent Cassel, is a tyrant, and accustomed to sex with his dancers. He seems to be the devil personified, and wants to mount a production of Swan Lake, with a new lead ballerina. Against all hope, Nina is selected. She is ecstatic, as is her mother. "Mom, he picked me!". But the director soon notices that although she is perfect as the white swan, she doesn't have that quality of evil to be a convincing black swan. He urges Nina to give in to her impulses, and in one conversation tells her to go home, touch herself and experience "letting go". She has already rejected his advances, so his advice to her is self serving as much as insightful. Then, a new dancer, Lilly, from San Francisco, is hired, who is the opposite of Nina. Lilly is worldly, does drugs, sleeps around, and is determined to become the lead. She befriends Nina, and the story becomes much more complicated.

The tension is unrelenting, and builds toward the stunning finish. The acting is absolutely outstanding and the story riveting. Some of the scenes are shocking. Portman's performance is amazing, she does much of her own dancing, and to this critic's eyes, looked like a ballerina. This critic predicts that she will be best remembered for her Nina. She clearly lost weight for this role, in fact looks anorexic. You can count every rib under her leotard. The camera work is fantastic, from hand held shots following Nina to long dancing takes. The close ups of the dancers are wonderful, and could be a film in itself. Nearly all of the scenes, intended to be inside Lincoln Center, are in huge cinder block spaces and narrow hallways that are reminiscent of Piranesi's prisons, emphasized by the grayness of everything. But this is not a somber film. It is beautiful, with dramatic visuals, many unforgettable. There is an astonishing intimacy in some scenes, and even those are memorable, such as a long close up of Nina altering her ballet shoes. Tchaikovsky's music underlies most of the sound track, sometimes arranged in an ominous, subdued way. Still, it is never less than gorgeous. Black Swan is a very powerful, very accomplished film that will easily make my ten best list this year, and will surely earn Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky Oscar nominations. Black Swan must be seen on a big screen. Playing at the Kabuki on two screens and in West Portal.

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