Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey (110 min.)
I am glad I took the time to absorb Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan before writing a single word about what I had seen. There is no way I could have walked, or staggered (at least mentally) out of the theater, sat down, and written a single coherent thing concerning the film. Black Swan is something that must first be observed, then digested, then reconsidered. Even now I feel like I haven’t fully seen this film, that only after a second and a third viewing will I be able to fully comprehend and dissect this fantastic spectacle. My initial reaction, mere seconds after leaving the theater, was a mix of enjoyment and a little confusion and some concern that maybe he had missed the mark in a few spots, that the camp and dark humor permeating the goings on in this story of rival ballerinas was unintentional. But after quite some thought and a little fresh perspective of my own, I feel like every move, every shot, every manipulation of the audience was fully intentional on Aronofsky’s part. There is nothing, I am now convinced, that Aronofksy will do or has done in any of his pictures that does not strike the nerve it intended to strike.
Natalie Portman, with her skin and muscles wound as tight as a drum, plays Nina Sayers, a technically sound, almost flawless ballet dancer at a local New York company. Nina desperately wants the lead in the new production of Swan Lake, playing both the white and black swan. The company director, Thomas (pronounced Toe-Ma), played by Vincent Cassel, is certain she has the technical prowess and innocence to portray the white swan. Only she does not have the sexual freedom and daringness it takes to play his black swan. Thomas is an egomaniac who preys on his ballerinas, having recently dismissed the aging star (a delightfully wicked Winona Ryder) so that he may move on to a younger love interest. He lusts after Nina, but Nina does not oblige. Not only is she being manipulated by Thomas, she is being controlled by her mother.
Nina’s mother, Erica, is played by Barbara Hershey, and is perhaps one step down from Carrie’s mother. Erica was once a dancer, but never made it big, and through her shortcomings she has practically created Nina. She guards Nina like a prison warden, keeps her bedroom pink and full of stuffed animals as if she was still a child, and has a strange habit of painting endless portraits of Nina that play a bigger part than one might imagine. Hershey undergoes her own transformation for the audience, although her outbursts towards Nina feel like moments she has suffered in the past. Nina is being pulled and shaped and manipulated in so many ways, that when a young ballerina named Lily (Mila Kunis, fantastic here) arrives at the company, showing the sexual prowess and free-wheeling attitude that Nina needs in order to become the part, her dedication becomes an obsession.
Lily serves as the photographic negative of Nina. Nina practices, is obsessive, has no life outside of the company and her home. Lily is a free spirit who smokes, parties, eats cheeseburgers instead of lettuce wraps, and doesn’t take herself seriously. She is everything Nina needs to embody the black swan for her role. Naturally, as Nina begins to spiral out of control, her obsession taking some frightening turns, she becomes wrapped up in Lily’s world and her sexual repressions manifest themselves in the film’s most discussed sequence between the two actresses. Nina’s nervous breakdown is the arc of suspense in the film, and the third act spins out of control just as Nina is unraveling under the pressure of opening night. The stress of Nina's world does not hide in subtle moments of introspection, but screams loudly through great moments of hallucinatory breakdowns and paranoia so intense, the film and the player begins to unravel in fascinating ways.
Aronofsky is not subtle in Black Swan, using a stark color palette to indicate the duality of the proceedings. Almost everything in the studio, be it the office of Thomas, the studio itself, or the dressing rooms, are black and white. And in every scene there is some sort of mirror, often times showing Nina to the audience with a reflection before she really enters the frame. Such techniques may seem elementary, or obvious, for a director like Aronofsky, but that is the idea. Aronofsky is not going for undertones, he is taking the film over the top and beyond, and he signifies this by showing us the obvious motifs and designed shots.
Much has been made about the dark comedy of Black Swan, and the way the proceedings explode into an almost campy excess. It may rub some the wrong way, but again, this is the direction Aronofsky had for the picture the entire time in my opinion. Ballet is a high-concept art, the cousin of opera if you will, and the lavish excess of such a profession lends itself to melodramatic, bombastic situations. Portman is, in my opinion, the frontrunner for Best Actress. Her performance, a physically demanding characterization of a poor girl wound so tight and driven so mad by the pursuit of perfection, is simply stunning. Portman is in every scene, and her madness is so boisterous and amplified throughout that the performance must be captivating in order for the film to succeed, and captivating it is. And Mila Kunis should not be overlooked either. She is perfect as a doppelganger for Nina. She exudes sex appeal, the thing that Portman has masked in her character by her rigid physique and a disposition and physical appearance that makes it seem like her skin is going to split open.
I wondered, after leaving the theater, if the laughter from the audience was an unintentional mistake by Aronofsky, but I don’t think so. Aronofsky has made an excessive, energetic, high-concept horror film rife with darkly comedic moments, melodrama, and camp necessary to emphasize the actions of these characters who exist in the overly theatrical world of the New York ballet scene. What a mesmerizing piece of work, a marvelous shot taken by Aronofsky, and a bold picture that relishes in its overindulgence. I was not particularly fond of The Wrestler, not as much as some, but I grew more and more adoring of Black Swan mere hours after leaving the theater. High camp? Indeed it is. It is also beautiful, horrifying, savagely amusing, and a brave film from a visionary filmmaker willing to take risks. What else would you expect from a film about insanity in the ballet world aside from melodramatic excess? I, personally, would not have wanted it any other way.