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Do You Have the Stomach to See Natalie Portman in 'Black Swan' This Weekend?

Fri, December 24, 2010 5:45pm EDT by 1 Comment
Winona Ryder Pictures

Natalie Portman is ‘relentlessly haunting’ and ‘impeccable,’ but is the rest of the cast — and the movie — up to the dark challenge? Our special correspondent Flora Collins investigates in her review of the Aronofsky film.

Eerie and almost verging on the grotesque, Darron Aronfsky’s Black Swan begins dramatically — with a dimly lit stage and a dancing figure. The slight ballerina is suddenly swept away by a sinister creature and we’re introduced to reality or, rather, the protagonist’s conception of reality. 

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a paranoid, masochistic, and fragile ballerina on the edge of insanity. Fresh-faced and even-featured, Portman is an impeccable white swan, both in the ballet and as her innocent, neurotic off-stage character. The film thrusts us forward with odd camera angles and high-tempered classical music. We are thrown into the antagonizing and self-destructive world of professional ballet as we observe Nina’s descent into madness.

Though the movie offers a psychological breakdown of a pretty young girl — a concept cinemagoers seem to love (think The Red Shoes or Diabolique, to name a few classics), the cast of characters isn’t quite up to par.

Vincent Cassel’s sadistic and perverted Thomas, the ballet master, is at times almost unintentionally humorous. He is a caricature of a psychopath, flinging crude remarks that would make even Patrick Bateman shudder. I found myself laughing at his sexually frustrated expressions and his overly ripe French accent.

Barbara Hershey emerges from a career hibernation as Nina’s mother, Erica. Her zealous and obsessive concern with Nina’s performance makes her a mom you love to hate and may even relate to. However, she delivers many of her lines with a rusty disconnection from her character. She’s lost her touch and sadly the movie lacks veracity without it.

Winona Ryder appears all too briefly as the aging prima ballerina whom Nina replaces. Her few, limited scenes are filled with rage and discontent. Though her performance is powerful, her striking features are clouded by a wild head of hair and her character is solely a monster, not a woman rightfully yearning for the ability she used to have. She’s shoved in the background, both in the plotline and physically on screen. I was left waiting for her elegant, older beauty to be juxtaposed against Portman’s young, dewy, refinement.

The psychological twists and mind games that the film explores are marred by the constant images of gore. The stomach-turning quasi-reality sequences are appropriately upsetting. But for a piece that is inherently dark and riveting — we’re getting into the head of a paranoid, self-loathing girl, after all — the more extreme graphic flourishes are superfluous.

Indeed, they become comedic and camp, definitely not the effect that’s relevant with such realistically ominous content. Black Swan offers insight into a backstage world we rarely see—the masochism and challenges of professional ballet. The delving into psychosis is fascinating and I enjoyed the suspense. Portman shines, but I wished for the other characters to be as relentlessly haunting. The movie works, but we’re left with the feeling that more could be done, and less could be shown.

— Flora Collins