‘Black Swan’ is no ugly duckling

Black Swan is a visceral movie experience. The spectacle, the style, and the sounds all work as one to create a suffocating environment that is a thrill to watch for the movie’s 100-some minute running time. Aronofsky creates such richly developed characters, owing a great deal to Natalie Portman and Barabara Hershey, that the film’s conclusion, albeit somewhat predictable, is almost a relief. While I admit I had grown attached to the characters on display in Black Swan, there’s a certain fragility to them that makes their inevitable destruction as exhausting as it is engrossing.

As I’ve previously stated, most of that is owed to Natalie Portman’s performance. Her complete transformation over the course of the movie is as mesmerizing as it is horrifying. Even more impressive is her physical dedication to the role of Nina. Completely disregarding the weight loss required for the role, the dancing alone stands out as one of the most telling yet restrained performances that I’ve seen all year. There’s no doubt that the awards praise that is being heaped on Portman is richly deserved.

However, I feel that in praising Portman, I’d be neglecting the other performances in the film. Hershey as a woman who gave up on her dream, but still attempts to live it out through her daughter is simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking. In many ways, I couldn’t help but compare Hershey to Piper Laurie’s Margaret White in the original Carrie. While Laurie was deliciously over the top, Barbara Hershey shows a passive aggressive subtlety that lends itself towards manipulation. Although the two are somewhat similar characters, Barbara Hershey performs with an underwhelming beauty.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Vincent Cassel’s turn as Thomas. He’s loud, he’s crass, and he’s blatantly manipulative. It’s a wonder that he manages to engage the characters so much, because he’s such an unlikeable character. There’s no attempt to make sense of his relationship with the other characters. It seems strictly sexual and it doesn’t even seem that he gets off on the sex. It’s the power that he exercises that makes him so repulsive and yet so magnetic. Even after watching the film, I don’t pretend to understand, but he is utterly engrossing every moment that he’s onscreen.

My one complaint has to do with the film’s end. The movie has such brilliant pacing to it, taking its time to develop Nina’s obsession with perfection even at great risk to herself. It creates an atmosphere that’s more powerful than its profoundly unsettling visuals. Then, in its third act, it seems to lose its sense of self. There’s an obvious argument to be made that this is intentional, but it wreaks of desperation. By the end, the third act is so riddled with clichés that, for me at least, it offsets a lot of what the movie was doing before it. Still, the end was more of a misfire than it was a deal breaker. It felt obvious and tired, but once again, Aronofsky’s visual style overcompensated for the material in a somewhat obvious attempt to make things right.

All in all, Black Swan is a great many things. It’s visual engaging. It’s beautifully acted. My one concern for the movie is all the praise that it’s getting. While it certainly deserves some of it, I felt that people were regarding this as revolutionary filmmaking. It’s not. It’s proficient filmmaking, but it doesn’t add much of anything new. That’s fine, but I can’t help but wish that people were doing the film justice rather than over-hyping it. Still, by the film’s close, Black Swan can speak for itself as an unsettling, entrancing character study where Natalie Portman shines.

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