Black Swan (2010)

There is nothing in this picture that could prepare you for the brilliant performance Natalie Portman gives as Nina Sayers in "Black Swan." Well...maybe something.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin. Story by Andres Heinz. Produced by Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messler, Brian Oliver. Original music by Clint Mansell. Photographed by Matthew Libatique. Edited by Andrew Weisblum. Production designed by Thérèse DePrez. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis,Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is many overlapping things: a juicy backstage drama, a pensive character study, a creepy fairy tale, a charged psychosexual thriller, a disturbing horror film. Sometimes it even flirts with the tropes of docudrama, and other times it’s a lurid fantasy. And it is, simultaneously, a whisper-quiet chamber piece and a frightened celebration of operatic excess. And it evokes Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, not just in its plot, but in its hypnotic, sensual tone, which understands the way artists are seduced by the pains and distant rewards of their art forms. At its center is a mesmerizing turn by Natalie Portman that is fearless in both its confidence and self-awareness. This is a breakthrough performance for this talented actress, but it’s also one that knows it is a breakthrough, and cleverly calls attention to the fact. Portman usually specializes in characters that are timid and fragile–a little reserved even when they’re supposed to be uninhibited. Here, she flowers in a role that is about the very act of flowering. Our doubts about her capabilities to do so are conflated with the film’s very story, which is…well, it’s a good one.

It is about ballet, that intoxicating blend of measure and passion, and it plants itself square in the world of a New York ballet company that goes unnamed but is most certainly prestigious (housed right at Lincoln Center). As ballerina Nina Sayers, Portman is effective at crafting a character that is sympathetic, while still allowing us a distance to note that something just isn’t quite right. She seems to mask buried resentment. Her passion for dance is inherited from her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), internalized to a degree that doesn’t appear quite healthy. She’s dedicated to the
point of monomania, has no friends or life outside theater rehearsals and her own private practicing. When she comes home to the tiny Upper West Side apartment she shares with mom, every angle of it feels ominous, like a jail cell made of carpets and stuffed animals. Even while rehearsing, her technique is flawless, but also a mechanical. She wants the position of prima ballerina badly, but she doesn’t lust for it, because lust is not in her vocabulary. For her company’s production of Swan Lake, she is a shoo-in for the virginal, frightened White Swan, but not bold enough for the seductive Black Swan, and in Swan Lake, one must usually play both. A dilemma.

The ballet company is lorded over by the despotic Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who, like many directors, feeds his
indulgences under the forgiving shroud of art. Nina feels both threatened and erotically charged by his prying eyes, his obvious interest…and also by and the new girl in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who is assured and uninhibited – everything that the Black Swan needs, everything that Nina is not. What follows is a tale of pressure upon Nina: pressure from the toxic encouragement of her mother, from the perverted father figure of Leroy, and from the mysterious Lily, who offers friendship yet seems to be provide a professional, personal and sexual challenge at every turn. Her efforts to sort through these factors will form the backbone of Black Swan’s plot, which is nothing less than a descent into pure madness.

So we know all that. And on paper, it sounds…fine. An artist whose life becomes a reflection of his art! How original. Right. What makes Black Swan fascinating and wonderful, is Darren Aronofsky’s darkly beautiful vision, and–striking in these timid filmmaking times–the courage it has of its convictions. Here is a film that plays absolutely true to the logic of a person who is losing their mind, especially in the way it gradually dispenses with logic as a useful system. Some might accuse it of going over the top, and they’d have a point, if it weren’t for how persuasively Aronofsky makes the case that this story has no top. It utilizes every trick in the book to put us in the shoes (or slippers, in this case) of a woman losing her grip on sanity, and by conclusion it plays like a demented fever dream shared by Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock. Polanski would have admired its fearless joining of the female psyche with a disturbing fairy tale, while Hitchcock would have been proud of how Black Swan is billed as a supernatural thriller when, arguably, it is anything but.

Its secret strength comes from the direction: specifically, Aronofsky’s methods of insisting upon the subjective nature of the narrative, without pushing too far and breaking the spell. The story is kept earthbound by its attention to detail: the dynamics of the ballet company, the rituals and methodology of how they work, the lengths it goes to explore the toll dancers put on their bodies to climb to success (never before have closeups of cracking feet, bloody toes and hangnails driven so many effective moments in a movie). Aronofsky’s camera is constantly on Portman, frequently approaching her from behind, over the shoulder, sharing her point of view, offering no comment. Mirrors and reflections are a noticeable, creepy motif. Later, special effects are used…lovely ones that exploit the slippery, intangible nature of CGI to suggest a fractured perspective struggling to find form. When Aronofsky arrives at shock moments that sound typical of any thriller, they are done so well, and prepared for so firmly and invisibly, that they come like thunderbolts that command our attention, and scare us. Aronofsky’s direction helps make Black Swan perhaps the most visceral film about insanity that I have ever seen.

The most beguiling aspects of the film are its thematic underpinnings, which make occult connections between sexual maturity and the transformative/destructive nature of art. Portman’s ballerina is criticized for lacking feeling to go alongside her technique, and with her infantilized home life, lack of experience and timid nature, it’s easy to see why. Early on, she makes a plea to Leroy about how she wants to be “perfect,” and we slowly realize that she has entered a phase in her career where perfection is a goal that is permanently unattainable. In her budding relationship with the ethereal vixen Lily, she finds a vehicle to breach her own walls of repression, even though Lily may not have her best interests at heart. And even then, a sheltered life has permanently branded Lily’s world of decadence as the “other,” and Nina’s mind rebels at her attempt to commune with it. Many have remarked that Black Swan makes an unfortunate connection between darkness and sex, but in actuality Nina is the one who enforces the connection, and the narrative suggests that this is her very problem, informed by her domineering mother, and perhaps by ballet’s tendency to mark sexuality as dangerous and forbidden.

Speaking of forbidden, the character of Lily…is a difficult one to talk about. Already, I may have said too much, and there may be some audiences that go into Black Swan believing it’s easy to figure out the game it’s playing. Except not. I strongly believe there is no “game” in Black Swan. No third-act twist that exists for its own sake, no “gotcha” moment that makes tidy sense of everything that came before. The film never tries to sneak up on our ideas about where the characters are headed, simply surprise us by be willing to go where we feared they would.

From the start, through costuming and camera angles and simply the nature of the story, it’s obvious that the character of Lily may very well be more than what she seems, and Kunis is masterful at playing the many contradictory sides of whatever exactly Lily is, and already you probably know what I’m talking about, so let me be clear: it’s not the point. At all. Aronofsky knows that his audience may be well aware of what is going on, so he doesn’t try to make that reveal the purpose of the film. Instead, we are invited to reflect on the nature of their curious relationship, one that has shades of the dynamic between Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus (one is composed and limited, the other messy and unconfined). It even borrows some of that play’s same thoughts about the differences those who make their craft and labored and those who make it a joy.

What makes Black Swan so strong is the way it moves past this reveal, and lets us discover what happens next. Some have been labeling Black Swan as a female version of Fight Club, and I think that’s unfair: both films may be about shallow symbols of gender, but Black Swan is bolder, and doesn’t weasel away from its material through easy irony. It’s more heartfelt and sincere, and even if it shares some traits, it delivers them uniquely, with gusto, and then (here’s the crucial part) follows them where they lead. It doesn’t cop out.

We’ve always known that Natalie Portman is a phenomenal actress. Think of her young debut in Leon, and her adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Garden State. Think of the potential that was wasted in the three Star Wars prequels, where she was undone by apathetic direction and a mess of a story. But then think of her unconvincing stripper in Mike Nichols’ Closer, or her waifish posturing in action pictures like V for Vendetta, and you’d be forgiven for writing her off as unable to grow. But she grows in Black Swan, practically before our eyes. There’s a moment here where Thomas angrily tells her to “stop being so weak.” Is that note for Nina or for Portman? What’s the difference? Nina starts off as what can absolutely be called the “Natalie Portman type:” unassertive and tremulous. Through the course of Black Swan, she becomes braver, looser, more comfortable with herself. After an ecstasy-laced night out with Lily, she answers her mother’s questions about her activities not just with drugged-up glee, but the assurance of an actress who can finally deliver a bawdy line with enthusiasm. Her later transformation into the Black Swan role is the lynchpin of the entire film, the one question we have for the entire running time: Can Nina pull it off? Can Portman pull it off, and is that the same question, and if so, what does that mean? Well, whatever the answer is, I won’t tell. But one way or the other, you will not be disappointed.

Aronofsky stated that Black Swan can be considered a companion piece to his previous film, The Wrestler. They complement each other intriguingly: both films are about performers driven to self-destruction in order to pursue their dreams, but The Wrestler involves a man surveying the debris of his life, while Black Swan sounds the note of a life unlived. It isn’t even a lament, because both films throughly sympathize with individuals who give everything they have (and I mean everything) to one last great act, a career-defining moment that consumes them. Is it worth it? Perhaps. If it’s “perfect.” While The Wrestler is about nobility in a marginal lifestyle, Black Swan explores the sacrifice and anguish it sometimes takes to make high art.

There’s a knowing echo here of how the artistic mill swallows up entire lives in service of a great performance. Note how pointed the casting is, in Ryder as the star being pushed aside, Portman as the professional with limited range, and Kunis as the threatening, young competition, and you see that Black Swan is not just about ballet, or even art, but also about the very people starring in it. Even Vincent Cassel, as the sleazy director, is typecast with a bit of wink, playing the Vincent Cassel role, and I hope he doesn’t mind too much, because there’s no one better. Hershey’s performance is brilliantly modulated—she remains a figure of sympathy even during scenes where she reminds us uncannily of Piper Laurie in Carrie. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out praise to Clint Mansell’s score, which uses Tchaikovsky as a foundation on which he marries classical with ethereal. This doesn’t just make wonderful music, but places us well inside the head of Nina: for her, the ballet is always running.

For Aronofsky, Black Swan is an unqualified success, one that is very much of a piece with his other films. He likes stories about people on the outside looking in, who follow their passions and are consumed by them. Compare his mad/brilliant mathematician in Pi, or whatever exactly Hugh Jackman was playing in The Fountain. Even his junkies of Requiem for a Dream go down the rabbit hole because they are in love with how drugs make them feel. With Black Swan, he has done what seems impossible, and told a story about classical ballet and madness that is free of the pretension that might be found in either subject. He favors an approach that is direct and real, even when it is so obviously not, if you know what I mean.

There may be those who spend a large amount of time determining exactly what happens in the third act of Black Swan, but I think such analysis is unnecessary, because Aronofsky communicates every emotion with crystal clarity. He chooses feeling over technique, and creates an indelible experience, one of the most intense trips to the theater you could have this year. During the closing moments, one character looks back and remembers a distant performance that was, perhaps, “perfect.” Is Black Swan perfect? Probably not. But it’s perfect enough.

GRADE: A

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1969 – True Grit

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1951 – A Christmas Carol

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