Darren Aronofsky, the director of the just-released BLACK SWAN, has cornered the market on emotionally exhausting films that present gritty and dark psychological profiles of fucked up, lonely characters. His films are not meant to be enjoyed by the audience. In fact, they are uncomfortable experiences that will leave you spent. However, they never fail to leave an indelible impression and its quite common to find a congregation of audience members outside the movie theater excitedly discussing the merits of the film. BLACK SWAN is arguably Aronofsky’s best film to date and its certainly his most classically cinematic effort so far in his career. I felt underwhelmed by the trailers, which seemed to be attached to almost every film I saw this past fall season. I’m one of the few people on this planet who’s not fond of Natalie Portman’s talents and the subject matter reminded me too much of 1992’s SINGLE WHITE FEMALE. The only thing motivating me to see this film was Aronofsky’s involvement and the big buzz the film had generated on the festival circuit. Having now finally seen it, BLACK SWAN has soundly exceeded my expectations and it ranks as among this year’s best films.

BLACK SWAN is a psychological drama about an obsessive perfectionist ballerina (Natalie Portman), Nina, who belongs to a ballet company that is looking for a new star to play the role of the Swan Queen in its production of Swan Lake. Nina is absolutely determined to land this role, which was recently played by an aging ballerina (Winona Ryder) who was unceremoniously released from the role. Living with her over-protective mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina leads a very sheltered life that completely revolves around her ballet. Everything that Nina has worked for her whole life comes down to getting the lead role in Swan Lake. At first the company director (Vincent Cassel) is unimpressed with Nina. He feels that although she has perfected her technique and she is perfect as the White Swan, she is unable to convey the dark, sultriness of the Black Swan. What’s more, a new ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), has joined the company who immediately poses a threat to Nina because of Lily’s apparent ability to successfully pull off the Black Swan role. To her surprise, Nina lands the lead role, but the constant pressure from her director to be perfect, Lily’s competition, and her mother’s over-bearing protection all begin to emotionally unravel Nina.

BLACK SWAN is one of those films that is precisely written to showcase a particular actor that if successfully executed, garners a swarm of accolades from the film community. This film spotlights Ms. Portman’s talents and, like her Swan character, she seems to have tirelessly worked toward this role throughout her career. The entire cast of this movie excels beautifully in their performances, but Portman is center stage here and she pulls off a stupendous performance. I have seen the majority of Natalie Portman’s films and although I have never considered her to be a bad actress (her horrendous work in STAR WARS notwithstanding as I completely blame George Lucas for being unable to direct actors), she has never played anything that is challenging enough to make me take notice. Prior to this film, the performance that came closest to really showing off Portman’s abilities was Mike Nichol’s excellent CLOSER, where Portman played a strip dancer. Even then, her work was uneven. With BLACK SWAN, the actress finally accumulates her 16 years of experience and takes over a challenging role that requires her to literally and figuratively transform from one extreme to another. Its not an overstatement to say that I was utterly transfixed by Natalie Portman from the first to the very last frame of the film.

As fantastic as Natalie Portman is in BLACK SWAN, this movie’s streak of excellence continues with the remainder of the cast. For anyone who thinks of THAT 70’S SHOW when they think of Mila Kunis, you will be in for quite a surprise after you see her in this. Kunis is naughty girl from the very first moment we see her when she runs in late on her first day of work and we see a pair of black wings tattooed on her back. Kunis is everything that Portman is not. She’s a great dancer without trying, she knows how to play the Black Swan, she can seduce men, she drinks, does drugs, and has experienced much more of the world than Portman has. For that, Portman views her as a threat. Kunis has played the bad girl role in past films (most recently in last year’s EXTRACT). The difference here is that she imbues her character with a more devious and cunning persona. By the way, the lesbian sex scene between Portman and Kunis easily ranks as one of the best cinematic sex scenes in the last 10 years.

When I think of Barbara Hershey, I think back to the 1980s and all the comparisons critics made between her, Debra Winger, and Jessica Lange (which I never really understood). Hershey has had an interesting personal life and professional career, but she’s mostly dropped out of the picture for the past two decades. Her role as Nina’s over-protective mother is sure to become one of her defining career roles and worthy of awards attention. Some may be reminded of Piper Laurie’s religious nut of a mother character in CARRIE or of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. Similarities do exist between these characters and Hershey’s character, but unlike those other characters, Hershey’s role is more complex and three-dimensional. She’s not altogether bad and her intentions for her daughter are motivated by her fear that Nina will get hurt by the harsh, outside world. Hershey sacrificed her career for Nina and all she has left in the world is her daughter. That’s not to say that Hershey is without some pretty psycho characteristics, but she’s also not so one-dimensional as to make the audience completely hate her or at least not sympathize with her actions.

Finally, we get to the great Vincent Cassel, whom I have always been a big fan of. Cassel has the face of an asshole and that has served the French actor well throughout his career. Here he plays the biggest prick you can imagine. As the director of the ballet company, he is uncompromising and direct. He doesn’t mince words when telling someone they suck or they no longer have a place in the company. What’s more, Cassel uses his position and influence in casting to sexually have his way with his main starlet. He expects Nina to submit to him sexually because, after all, he gave her the lead role. He couches his desire for her in the excuse that the star needs to intimately understand her director. Cassel is the perfect casting choice for this type of role and he doesn’t fail to live up to the character’s arrogant sliminess.

I don’t know shit about ballet and its not something that I’m willing to rush out and see anytime soon. Its an art that I appreciate for the discipline and dedication it requires, but its not one that I particularly find entertaining to watch. Whether or not you enjoy ballet will have no bearing on whether you will like BLACK SWAN. If anything, you will gain a little more appreciation for the hard work that ballerinas have to put into preparing for concerts and the physical pains they have to endure to achieve perfection. I actually found Aronofsky’s decision to base his story in the world of ballet to be very fitting. When we think of that world, we think of skinny competitive bitches vying for a spot in the play, domineering mothers who constantly push their daughters, and anorexic ballerinas who strive to maintain a body weight of 10 lbs. With such an environment, anyone is sure to go fucking insane. So what better world to work within than ballet to tell the story of a girl slowly going mad? Aronofsky does a masterful job in immersing the audience in his portrayal of this world, which is far from a sugar-coated world resembling The Nutcracker. Most of the film takes place in dark, urban, and gritty locales that are devoid of any colors but grey and black. The ballet company’s practice stage is all black and mirrors. The director’s apartment is completely in black and white and he is always seen wearing blacks, greys, and whites. Nina is usually seen to be headed to and from practice in claustrophobic, graffiti-scrawled subway tunnels. Even when Nina decides to live a little and spends a night with Lily, they go to a dark restaurant and dance club. Nina’s only sanctuary is her bedroom, which contains the only bright colors in the film (even the rest of her apartment contains very little color so as to indicate that even her mother’s protection serves as a form of threat to Nina’s existence). In the end, Aronofsky presents the world of ballet at its ugliest, most extreme permutation.

If you can’t already tell, BLACK SWAN isn’t exactly December holiday fare. It’s an unnerving, psychological character study that is at times a horror film and other times an almost darkly campy melodrama reminiscent of SHOWGIRLS. Aronofsky will constantly keep you guessing whether what Nina sees is actually real or a figment of her paranoia. Like I stated before, this is not a film that is meant to be enjoyed. Its uncomfortable to watch and you will remain tense throughout the movie. The director employs a number of techniques to create this effect, some of which are described above. An additional technique is the use of a handheld camera. Now I have railed pretty harshly in the past about how much this camera technique has overstayed its welcome. However, if there is one film where such a technique is appropriate (and well utilized) its BLACK SWAN. The director uses it effectively to keep his audience off balance and in the end, it contributes to the film’s success.

So there you have it. Is BLACK SWAN the best film of 2010? Its very difficult to say considering the strength of some past films released this year (namely, INCEPTION and THE SOCIAL NETWORK) and there are a few films coming out in December that are potentially vying for the top spot. However, I can say that the film ranks among the best of the year and one not to be missed. On a final note, I dig the hell out of the art deco style posters for the film, one of which I have provided in this post.