It is one thing to read the relentless hype still swirling around “Black Swan,” a film heavily nominated but nominally rewarded at the Academy Awards. It is an entirely different thing to hear that hype made real while strolling through the aisles of a supermarket, hearing strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake alongside the inescapable E-Mart jingle.
In the three months since its wide release, the psychological thriller “Black Swan” has become an international sensation, garnering a slew of awards for its stunning lead actress, Natalie Portman, and its superb director, Darren Aronofsky.
“Black Swan” swoops onto Korean shores following a disappointing performance at the Oscars. Though in the running for best cinematography, best editing, best actress, best direction, and best picture, only Ms. Portman received recognition for the achievements of this astonishing piece of cinema.
The award was well deserved, however, as Ms. Portman delivers a performance that mesmerizes from minute one as the ballerina Nina Sayers. The film opens in a dream, in the mind of Nina and it is here on the psychological machinations of the quiet, timid dancer that the focus of the film remains. A ballerina in the New York Ballet Company, Nina receives the chance of a career when the company director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, offers her the role of the Swan Queen in the company’s production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.
The role Nina assumes is an overwhelming challenge, for she must inhabit the delicate, fragile form of the White Swan and the dark, seductive side of the Black Swan. For Ms. Portman, the task of inhabiting Nina was no small feat either: preparation involved months of physical training and ballet lessons with her co-star, Mila Kunis. The actresses immersed themselves in the the world of the ballet studio as evidenced in the wispy, but sinewy form of Ms. Portman.
An off-camera bodily transformation like the one Ms. Portman underwent for “Black Swan” often captures the eye of the Academy (Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”), but it is the nuanced transfiguration that occurs on screen that makes Ms. Portman’s performance truly Oscar-worthy.
Initially, Thomas does not believe that Nina possesses the necessary forcefulness to fully realize the character of the Black Swan. Nina is a sheltered girl, stuck perpetually in a semi-adolescent state—living at home with her freakishly overprotective mother, in a room surrounded by stuffed animals and music boxes—and Thomas attempts to uncover her darker impulses to catalyze a personal transformation akin to the one in Swan Lake. Thomas’ hardly subtle psychological domination of Nina, combined with her own perfectionist streak, sends the girl into a downward spiral of delusions and hallucinations that culminate on opening night in what is undoubtedly the most spectacular sequence put to celluloid last year.
This tour-de-force climax, however, arises from the incredible efforts of the entire cast and crew of the film, not just Ms. Portman. The script of “Black Swan” is bareboned like the dancers themselves, but beautifully calibrated to keep the audience guessing as it ratchets up the tension in the third act. The cinematography by Mr. Aronofsky’s frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique (“Requiem For a Dream,” “The Fountain”) constantly surrounds Nina with mirrors and the tactful editing by Andrew Weisblum blurs the lines between these reflected surfaces, the camera, and the screen itself. Binding all of the film’s magnificent elements, Clint Mansell’s haunting reimaginings of segments from Tchaikovsky’s ballet create a soundtrack sure to endear this music to a new generation.
The orchestrator of the film itself, Mr. Aronofsky, deserves more credit for the visionary experience of “Black Swan” than he has received. Mr. Aronofsky has blazed an interesting trail through the hills of Hollywood recently by crafting films like “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” that are singularly focused character studies. His ability to dissect characters, be they wrestlers or ballerinas, appears second to none in contemporary filmmaking. It is a shame that the Academy decided to hand the laurels for best director to Tom Hooper, a British filmmaker with more experience in television serials than the cinema, rather than an American master with a growing list of great pictures to his name.
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