Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan ingeniously merges the spectacle of dance with the base emotions of melodrama, two schools of theatricality that, if done right, are equally demanding. The result is a lurid, daring, and mesmerizing psychological thriller, one that’s founded on the idea that the pursuit of perfection is not a matter of time or effort but of sanity. The line between reality and fantasy is at times easily distinguishable, but at other times is blurred to the point of sheer confusion. It challenges perceptions with questionable events and unreliable characterizations – which, I have no doubt whatsoever, were intentionally written that way. It continuously frightens us, and yet it lures us in with disturbing but beautiful imagery. This is the kind of film you don’t simply watch. You experience it.
This could not have been an easy ride for star Natalie Portman. She and Aronofsky must have known that the film’s success would depend entirely on her, for her character doesn’t merely drive the plot but is in fact the plot itself. Not only would she have to be believable, she would also have to be willing to tax herself physically and emotionally – and numerically, assuming you choose to interpret her work as a duel role. She would have to endure six months of ballet training and body toning. It would be a commitment, not just an acting job. She was clearly more than qualified to meet these demands; her performance is brave, complex, stirring, and nothing short of extraordinary.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a New York ballet dancer driven by the need to be perfect. She practices rigorously. She rarely eats, and what little she does eat, she throws up. She auditions for the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” which would require her to give a duel performance. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has already told her that he would be featuring her more this season. Still, there seems to be room for improvement; while he sees nothing wrong with her interpretation of the innocent and elegant White Swan, he sees all technique and no passion with the devious and sensual Black Swan. More suited for the latter is Lily (Mila Kunis) a new dancer from San Francisco. She’s everything Nina is not: Relaxed, outgoing, a little bawdy, and embracing of her imperfections.
Leroy, lecherous and creepy, tells Nina that she must be seductive as the Black Swan. She must lose herself in the role. She must be in touch with her own body. Nina would know nothing about this. She’s cared for and encouraged by her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer whose expressions of love mask an alarming psychological fixation, one that fuels her artistic abilities and gives no latitude for privacy or trust. Into Nina’s life enters Lily, who seems friendly enough but may actually be plotting to take over the duel role in “Swan Lake.” She eventually understands the plight of Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), an aging ballerina who was once a great star but has now been replaced.
Nina, her rivalry with Lily doubling as a strange friendship, is ultimately consumed with revenge fantasies, ones that get increasingly shocking as the opening night of “Swan Lake” approaches. Little by little, her grasp on reality slips. For no apparent reason, a rash on her shoulder turns into a wound. Does she deal with the stress of attaining perfection by mutilating herself? Her reflection isn’t quite in sync with her body – or perhaps it’s the other way around. Events that seem to have taken place may not have. People who appear may not actually be there, and vice versa. The more Nina’s world unravels, the more we can’t stop watching; reality fades into a hypnotic dreamscape of primal urges. Some are deeply unsettling. Others include a lesbian love scene that would be frightening were it not so sexy.
Aronofsky visualizes Nina’s descent in two distinct ways. One is through the use of computer-generated imagery, and while that may be expected in this day and age (perhaps even required), it allows for the inclusion of specific symbols that are necessary to advance the story. The other is through the handheld camera work, which gives the film an unsteady perspective. Close up shots are naturally jerky. He follows characters as they walk from one room to another. He circles dancers in broad, dramatic sweeps during major dance sequences. These images literally move along with the plot, and what help makes Black Swan some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s a dark and shocking drama that stimulates the senses and plays on emotions.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures