“Watch the way she moves.”

For all of its weirdness, I really liked the The Fountain. And even though I’m still trying to wash off the ick after seeing Requiem for a Dream, I recognize it as a piece of art. Both of those films are really over the top in their own ways, so when I settled in to Black Swan, I have to say I was expecting something similar.

For those of you not in the know, the film follows Natalie Portman, a dancer in a NYC ballet company, who’s trying to get the lead role in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. Her director, played by Vincent Cassel (also known as the Night Fox), thinks she’d make a great White Swan, but is worried she lacks the raw sensuality and abandon to play the titular Black Swan. Portman, much like an actual ballet dancer, is slowly going bats**t crazy preparing for the role, with her transformation having surprising and unexpected results.

Darren Aronofsky is a man who knows his business, so I won’t say that after several years he’s learned to reign in and refine his style. Still, I found Black Swan to be somewhat understated, but only in comparison to his other films. Even when Portman is in the depths of her insanity, we’re only given a taste of her madness before the film pulls away and snaps us back to reality.

Still, Aronofsky returns with many of his usual tricks. Throughout the film, we’re given several closeup shots of dancers cracking knuckles, stretching, warming up. These are all accompanied by über loud and bassy sound effects, and really show how the body can be used as a tool, a piece of hardware.

While there are a lot of faces on the screen, the story is told principally through Portman, Kunis and Cassel. And even then, Kunis and Cassel only serve in auxiliary roles, one pushing while the other pulls Portman into a transcendent level of commitment to the role she’s trying for. After her time on ‘That 70s Show’ and ‘Family Guy,’ Kunis will probably be forever written off. I wouldn’t go that far. She can act, but for the most part this film doesn’t really give her anywhere to go. She’s a party girl, trying to get Portman to loosen up and live a little, which she does in one scene that’s guaranteed to have indignant girlfriends/wives walking out of theaters all over the country. And for those of you wondering about that, Aronofsky uses a few clever camera angles so that there’s never any actual nudity in the film. The film could probably have done without it, but it serves its purpose and isn’t dwelled upon. So…*cough.* What was I saying?

The entire film is psychologically tense, and that’s due entirely to Portman’s performance. You feel like you’re stretched taught throughout the entire thing, and never really let go of until the credits start to roll. Her character is so nervous and timid, and never quite figures out how to react to what’s happening to her.

Black Swan wasn’t the blowout I was expecting walking into the theater, but it may be the most solid film I’ve seen all year, and probably Natalie Portman’s best. She’s definitely done her part to make up for those horrible Star Wars prequels. So that’s good. I have a feeling this is the one that’ll go up against The Social Network at the Oscars next year, but will be handily beaten when James Cameron brings Avatar back, because there’s no stopping that bastard.

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