January 18, 2011 by Zack
“Black Swan” is what I consider to be a “performance film” in which the lead character or characters drive the actual film. I also call these film “Actor films” because the reason you watch the film is for the performance of the actor, not necessarily for the plot. Recent examples of this would include “Crazy Heart” and “The Wrestler”, Darren Aronofsky’s previous film. It’s not that the film is bad or underwhelming. But the strength is in the performance, and in “Black Swan”, this is Natalie Portman’s dime and dance floor. In this case, she’s wearing ballet shoes. And my oh my, does she own the screen.
The story itself lays itself parallel with “Swan Lake”, the ballet that her character, Nina, has been chosen to play the lead of. As the Swan Queen, her character undergoes a metamorphosis from being the frail, fragile White Swan to the more sinister and seductive Black Swan. Nina represents the White Swan perfectly; but she cannot pull off the sensuality of the Black Swan. She is given an alternate (or understudy) named Erica (played nicely by Mila Kunis) and Nina’s paranoia of losing her spot to this girl, who perfects the Black Swan persona, drives her deeper into madness as the film progresses.
The visuals and symbols are nice but they’re very obvious and predictable. It’s a very familiar story. After all, it’s “Swan Lake”. The music numbers are instantly recognizable even if you’re not into ballet at all. The film moves at a fairly good pace; Aronofsky knows what you want to see. And yes, the scene between Kunis and Portman is highly stimulating.
The film is just fine; but it’s Portman’s masterful performance as the quivering and scared Nina and her transformation into the dark, angry and volatile Nina. Her range is fantastic and she shines through and makes this film seem better than it is. This is her moment, and she will definitely be the front runner for Best Actress this year.
Looking at Aronofsky’s last two films, I still think “The Wrestler” is a better picture because it does take a more creative angle while this film stays completely within the bookends of “Swan Lake” and doesn’t transcend anything else. You can follow Nina’s journey knowing exactly what will happen. The suspense scenes draw very little excitement and the climax is anticipated without too much fervor. There are, however, some fantasy scenes involving some self-inflicted wounds that are a bit hard to watch.
Overall, it’s a must see picture only because of Portman’s achievement here. The film is fine; but without her, I don’t think it’s something you have to see. Portman carries this movie over the edge, the way Will Smith did with “I Am Legend”. This is a far superior film to “I Am Legend”, but sometimes just to see an actor at their best is worth the price of admission regardless.