Movie Review: Black Swan (R)

by Roxana Hadadi

Let’s just say it: No child should see “Black Swan.” Yes, it’s a movie about ballerinas, but a teen flick like “Center Stage” this is not. This is a mind-bending, nightmare-causing whirlwind of a psychological thriller that will scare the hell out of you if you’re paying attention – and there’s no way not to do so, given the beautiful, haunting images that director Darren Aronofsky builds his film around.

The film is rated R, so no one under 17 should be able to see it anyway – but don’t get conned into taking a teenager who thinks Natalie Portman was adorable as Padmé in the later three “Star Wars” films, or who has seen Mila Kunis in “That ‘70s Show” reruns and thinks she’s just a goofy rich girl looking for love with Ashton Kutcher. No, no, no. Even older teens won’t be able to handle this flick, and it’s arguable that anyone – especially women – will be shaken to the core by the torturous ordeals Aronofsky puts his main character through. This is the same man who created films like “Pi,” about a genius who puts a power drill to his temple to stop his crippling smartness; “Requiem for a Dream,” which focused on four drug addicts and the terrible things that happen as a result of their habit, like amputation, prison and prostitution; and “The Wrestler,” a portrait of a once-powerful man whose disastrous personal life mirrors his own inner discontent. Aronofsky doesn’t make happy films, and “Black Swan” is no exception.

In fact, it may be his most damaging yet. The plot goes a little like this: Perfectionist ballerina Nina (Portman), after four years of brutalizing her body and being stuck firmly in the background, finally gets what she wants, the lead role in her company’s production of “Swan Lake.” In the role, she’ll be required to portray both the virginal, pure White Swan and the more evil, seductive Black Swan, who brings about the White Swan’s suicide. But the domineering nature of the company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vince Cassel), threatens Nina’s fragility, which is mainly caused by her overbearing, meddling mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave her up own ballet career years before to have Nina. If that pressure wasn’t enough, Nina becomes even more threatened by new dancer Lily (Kunis), for whom ballet comes more naturally, more organically – and who may be a rival not just for the lead role in “Swan Lake,” but for Thomas’s affections, too.

OK, so that sounds kind of straightforward – and if this were any other movie, we would root for Nina, who would move out of her mother’s apartment and get a place of her own, tell Thomas to get lost, find a new guy who values her, somehow come to terms with her competition with Lily, dance flawlessly during “Swan Lake” and die rich, happy and loved. But “Black Swan” isn’t a John Hughes film; no one gets what they want here, at least not really – and certainly not Nina. Instead, Aronofsky takes us down a path marked with terrors, delusions, nightmares and hallucinations that hint not only at Nina’s instability but at the nastily conniving world we live in. Our protagonist isn’t totally innocent or totally blameless, and while we sympathize with the imperious, deceptive nature of the people meant to care about her, nothing is simple here, or easy to understand. You’re going to need to think about “Black Swan” to truly get it.

That is, of course, if you can first handle the visceral reactions you’ll inevitably have to the lurid images onscreen, from the damage done to the ballet dancers’ bodies – bloody toes, wrenched ankles – to the gory aftermath of a horrible car accident to a few different vicious, venomous fights between various characters, with hands brutally slammed in doors and stab wounds. And that’s just the violence. Most of the film also has to do with sexuality, whether it’s the relationship between Nina and Thomas, Thomas and former star ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, being particularly spiteful), Nina and Lily, Lily and Thomas and, most importantly, Lily and her own sense of self. Think of “Splendor in the Grass,” where Natalie Wood’s high school character was driven to insanity because of her mother’s insistence she remain a virgin, and you’ll get some idea of what’s going on in Portman’s gorgeous, but perpetually confused, head.

So the film deserves the R rating. You have lots of violence, lots of sex (masturbation, a graphic-but-lacking-in-nudity lesbian sex scene, a few different heterosexual sex scenes), lots of cursing, lots of mental abuse and only a little drug use, but most awful, really, are the thrills Aronofsky gives us of the totally mental variety, like hallucinations about Nina’s humanity and body. No child should see them, and adults should certainly be prepared. But for all its family-unfriendliness, the film is still another testament to Aronofsky’s unsettling skill as a director, his ability to create perfectly flawed characters and perfectly gorgeous images that create an unforgettably affecting version of reality (or not). The dancing, most of which Portman and Kunis did themselves, is certainly impressive; their version of “Swan Lake” is stark and gripping, with the costumes and makeup adding another visual dimension. And in terms of performances, Portman should expect another Oscar nod for her slowly shattering portrayal of Nina, while Kunis and Cassel dazzle as casually cruel people who are only happy when others are suffering.

For kids, not at all; for adults with a thirst for mental devastation, “Black Swan” is Aronofsky through and through. Too bad his next movie is slated to be another installment in the “Wolverine” spinoff of the “X-Men” films – definite downgrade.

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