Darren Aronofsky does not create films with thematic subtlety… instead, he picks a theme to run with, dives deep into the emotional pits of human limits until something eventually snaps. Black Swan is no different.
With what could be described as a perfect cast, Aronofsky goes into the world of ballet to show one woman’s transformative journey from child like drive for perfection to allowing herself to let go of her rigid sheltered life and open herself to the darker side of actually living… and in the process, destroying her grip on reality in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayer, a prima ballerina waiting for her chance for stardom. Behind her constant need to perfect every technique, every move is her mother Erica, played with a menacing glower barely concealed behind an overly protective facade by Barbara Hershey.
The film opens with Nina and her mother in their small New York apartment… ballerina teddy bears, music boxes, lace and frill… an obvious adult child with a frail high pitched voice of a girl. Hoping to be featured more in the coming season, the ballet’s director Thomas Leroy as performed by the French actor Vincent Cassel (I haven’t seen much of his work, but he is fantastic and I will make some time to see this years two part French film Mesrine), surprises everyone with unplanned auditions for his new production of Swan Lake… and now that the company’s previous primadonna is retiring, he will be looking for a new Swan Queen. But he needs someone who can perform both the good White Swan as well as the evil Black Swan. With a combination of Aronofsky’s love for close ups and Portman’s remarkably expressive face (which I had no idea existed until now… the expressiveness, not her face… I knew she had that), we feel her desire for the role… we feel her lack of confidence… we feel the pressure she puts upon herself. On top of this, a new ballerina has joined the company… Lily (the gloriously gorgeous Mila Kunis). Lily is immediately seen as being everything Nina is not. She is easy going, imprecise yet natural and exudes sexuality and danger. Nina exudes virginal innocence… an ignorance to the adult world she should belong to, technical perfection with no passion.
The challenge comes when she comes to ask for the role of the Swan Queen. Thomas believes she is perfect for the White Swan, but doesn’t have the seductive power to perform as the evil twin. Biting his lip after an unwelcome kiss, he catches a glimpse of the darkness she may possess, and gives her the part… along with some homework… to go home and touch herself. On the surface, a crass direction to masturbate… subtextually, to get in touch with herself and allow something other than total control to take over. This is where to movie begins to diverge from the basic “art/sport triumph over adversary” trope so common in films about ambition. Nina’s world begin to unravel as paranoia and pressure take their toll on her mental state and for the remainder of the movie we are left wondering what is reality and what is in her head. Is Lily her friend? Is she undermining Nina so she can become the Swan Queen? Is Thomas wanting her to become more aware of her sexuality for the sake of the ballet, or for his own personal desires? Does her mother want her to succeed or to remain her little ballerina doll?
One aspect of the film that I adore is how the casting for all of these roles seems to not be just a comment on the world of ballet, but also the world of acting itself. Similar to how Inception was a meta view of film making itself, Black Swan uses knowledge of all principals to make a point on where we place age and beauty in terms of our adoration. Natalie Portman so often plays what Nathin Rabin of The Onion’s A.V. Club refers to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and has rarely if ever had much luck in showing anything other than a happy magical young woman… no matter how many geeky Comic-Con fans worship her. Can she really tap into that side of herself and transform from the White to Black swan as the ballet, and life for her, demands? Barbara Hershey at one time had the potential for an amazing career, and seemed to always reside on the sidelines forever thereafter. Playing her mother with a regrettable past feels quite right for her. Mila Kunis… the super hot young actress… up and coming and seemingly more daring and less uptight. And best of all, casting Winona Ryder as the aging, bitter, egomaniacal retiring/pushed out star Beth Macintyre. An inspired choice. It’s watching four generations of actresses realizing their place in the grand scheme of things, and the emotional mess they can all make of each other.
Elements of horror begin popping up as Nina’s mental state deteriorates. A few genuine shocking moments where I actually jumped up out of my seat, and all along, Aronofsky’s camera is right there… close and personal. I should also mention the dancing itself. I am not a fan of ballet in general, yet I have to respect it as a beautiful artform, and as filmed here… positively stunning. Not simply the grace and the beauty, but also the pain. The close ups (again) of cracking feet, split toe nails, Inquisition-like massage sessions… squirm inducing. This movie is not comfortable. But it is an incredible artistic achievement. Portman also deserves a great deal of credit for what she achieved physically. Preparing for this role, she lost a ridiculous amount of weight and is nothing but bone, sinew and muscle… which for the role is perfect. Performing her own dancing (most of the time) with limited CGI is impressive.
I had mentioned the theme of transformation at the start, and I do believe that is the overriding gist of the story… but like an old master’s fresco, it’s about the layers. Between the masterful direction, the lush cinematography and what will certainly be Oscar nominated (if not wins for Portman and/or Hershey) performances, Black Swan will surely be viewed of one of the finest films of 2010. Expect to see and hear a great deal about this as awards season progresses… and I would gladly lay down some money on this being nominated for Best Picture, Director and at the very least, two acting awards.
Although it is currently in limited release (only playing in two theaters in the entire San Francisco Bay area), I’m sure this will be in wide release soon. Treat yourself to an extraordinary experience and see this on the big screen. It is a sumptuous feast and as it moves along, you will be rewarded with what may be the greatest metamorphosis this side of Kafka.
Your Blahg Swan himself,
Cornelius J. Blahg