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Black Swan (2010): ***½

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

I went in to Black Swan expecting it to be a drama about the trials and tribulations of ballet dancer Nina (played by Natalie Portman) with some dark, psychological thriller undertones. What I did not expect was for the movie to be basically a full-blown body-horror movie with a surprising amount of gore in it.

Aronofsky does a masterful job of filming seemingly normal, everyday things but making them feel wrong. There’s something wrong with the way Nina interacts with her mother. There’s something wrong with the way the ballet director interacts with her. There’s something wrong with the world through which she walks. And then small bits start happening--or do they?--that make you realize there’s something wrong with Nina.

Portman’s Nina is frustrating. She is so absolutely terrified of something--of disappointing her mother and director perhaps?--that she has honed her technique to be absolutely flawless, but that same terror of failure absolutely cripples her; she is unable to dance with any feeling or passion whatsoever. There’s a sequence where Nina is practicing being the seductive Black Swan of Swan Lake. She’s supposed to seduce the prince. It’s horrible; she is stiff and mannered and completely unbelievable in the role. In frustration the Director asks the male dancer, “Honestly, would you f*** that girl?” She can’t stop apologizing. But there’s something inside of her, a darkness that is threatening to bubble to the surface. Perhaps literally. Portman gives a great performance as the sheltered, shy Nina, watching in horror and fascination at her own transformations, and I’m not surprised to see her being nominated for several awards.

Nina’s mind isn’t the only thing to transform--her body undergoes startling and disturbing changes throughout the course of the movie, and the makeup and special effects are truly remarkable, climaxing in an absolutely thrilling and unbelievable sequence towards the end of the film that actually made me gasp and say, “Wow!” out loud. It is one of the most remarkable single sequences I’ve seen in a film in quite a while.

In a strange way this movie is a perfect companion piece to Aranofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler. Both are about people who obsessively try to master physical performances to the detriment of all else in their lives. In the case of The Wrestler, it's his body that betrays him. In Black Swan it's her mind. Aranofsky uses similar camerawork and filming styles to give both films a gritty realism. I especially love his technique of placing a camera directly behind his characters’ heads and following them as they walk through their worlds. It’s an incredibly effective way to introduce a setting and the characters’ places within it.

Black Swan is a very well-made movie, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Its realistic, almost documentary-style filming grounds the heightened melodrama and fantastical elements into reality. I know it’s a pretty divisive film. People tend to either think it’s great or it’s absolutely ridiculous. It worked for me.

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