Perfect is easy; it's passion that trips her.

Black Swan

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Black Swan is a story of dance, perfection, obsession, and mental illness, and it soars on the wings of some of the best performances we will see all year. Front and center throughout, Natalie Portman sustains an aura of physical and emotional anxiety so intense that there is no way to look away from her even for a moment. The movie walks the thin edge between symbolism and horror, and could easily have slipped the wrong way with lesser acting and directing. With great skill from all players, symbolism prevails.
            Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer obsessed with perfection in her art. Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) is obsessed with her daughter's success. Driven by her sense of duty to her art and to her mother, Nina is caught in a rigidity of thought and movement that may prevent her from dancing the dark side of herself and of human nature as the black swan in Swan Lake. As the white swan, she's just fine - perfect is easy. It's passion that trips her.
            Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), her dictatorial director, has taken on the challenge of loosening Nina's emotions. After a failed seduction, Thomas says, "That was me seducing you; it's supposed to be the other way around." Still, he casts her as the swan, and in one of the film's sadder moments, she telephones her mother in a tiny, whispered voice, "He picked me, Mommie." Director Darren Aronofsky builds the characters with small, hugely effective touches like this until the people we are watching stand emotionally naked on screen. At times, it's almost too hard to watch.
            When Thomas threatens to replace Nina with Lily (an excellent Mila Kunis) as the black swan, Nina knows her rival has the emotional passion to bring the part alive. Already engaging in self mutilation - peeling skin from her fingers, scratching her shoulder open - Nina is overwhelmed by hallucinations that reflect the politics and pressures of her world - from Lily, from Beth (a fine Wynona Ryder as the rejected diva), from her diabolical mother, from Thomas. She hasn't yet lived enough to insist on being herself, and letting herself experience life is, to her, a violation. She doesn't recognize herself in mirrored reflections. Bones break, legs collapse; she abandons herself to a night in a bar and in bed with Lily. In a fine stroke by director Aronofsky, neither Nina nor the audience can grasp the line between illusion and reality.
            Nina, whose emotional inadequacy for the role is the price she has paid for her perfection, tries desperately and in vain to express the emotions that lifelong repression has denied her. For this fine classical dancer, only her final hallucination can free her to dance the black swan on stage at Lincoln Center for all the world to see. And it seems quite possible that only Natalie Portman could have created this portrait with such dazzling physical and emotional credibility.


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