Monday, January 31, 2011

Reflections on the Surreal

Darren Aronosfsky is known for his dark, surreal films that straddle the line between drama and horror. His latest is the much-discussed and much-lauded Black Swan. The film centers on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dedicated ballerina who teeters on the edge of sanity after being given the coveted role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.

Nina is a perfectionist with flawless technique, but her emotional state is extremely fragile. Sheltered by her obsessive and manipulative mother, she is naïve, reserved, and often overlooked by the ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). After rumors circulate that the company’s principle dancer, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), is being forced to retire, Nina sees her chance to be cast as the lead in Leroy’s adaptation of Swan Lake. She auditions, but Leroy is hesitant to give her the part because she lacks the passion to dance the part of the evil and seductive Black Swan. Nina lands the role, but is dismayed to learn that newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) will be her understudy. Nina’s already tentative self-confidence is shaken to the core and she becomes convinced that Lily is trying to destroy her and steal the part. She experiences strange and violent hallucinations that spiral her into a state of complete paranoia. She is determined to give a perfect performance, even if she loses her mind in the process.

From the beginning of the film, it is clear that Aronofsky’s theme focuses on mirrors and reflections. Throughout the movie, Nina and Lily are presented as reflections of one another, with Lily representing Nina’s darker side – the side she needs to embrace to become the Black Swan. Slowly, Nina’s own reflection takes on a life of its own as she becomes darker and more disturbed. As with many of his films, Aronofsky plays with reality, tricking both his main character and his audience with subtle shifting imagery. The climax brings all of the surreal imagery together, culminating in Nina’s breakdown. He also uses repeated sounds and dialogue layered under the film’s score in pivotal moments to heighten the audience’s sense of unease. The movie is skillfully crafted, down to the fluid way the camera moves with the dancers, throwing the audience in the middle of the action. I was very impressed with the CGI special effects. They could have easily been overdone, but Aronofsky uses them to enhance the more frightening scenes – never detracting from the actors’ performances.

Ultimately, the performances make this film what it is. Portman is exquisite in her portrayal of the fragile Nina. From the start of the film, we see she is in pain and her fall into paranoia and delusion is not only believable, but seems utterly inevitable. She is already on edge, and being cast as the lead pushes her over. Her personality changes never seem forced and her transformation into the Black Swan is compelling. Barbara Hershey gives a very strong performance as Nina’s overbearing mother and Cassel does an excellent job as the Svengali-like ballet director.

It is easy to see why Black Swan is so highly praised and I find it refreshing that it became a mainstream success, as many surreal films don’t experience that kind of popularity. The art direction and cinematography are gorgeous, as is the dancing, and I guarantee this film will haunt you. If you have the chance to see it in the theater, I highly recommend it, as the darkness and large screen definitely enhances the darker, more frightening scenes.

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