1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Black Swan June 18, 2014
“I felt it. It was perfect,” Nina (Natalie Portman) whispers as she closes her performance as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. After years of dancing with technical perfection rather than with emotion, Nina loses both her mind and her life in an attempt to feel her performance rather than simply going through it.
At the beginning of the film in which she serves as the protagonist, Black Swan, she is a reflection of the white swan — fragile, virginal, and naïve. But by the end does she succumb to her inners of her more destructive self, inadvertently transforming into the sinful character that is the eponymous Black Swan.
From the outsider's perspective is ballet is a beautiful art form, a glassy-smooth performative delicacy. But Black Swan, as simultaneously theatrically beautiful and emotionally ugly as it is, gives us a portrait of the inside, one that may be over-dramatized for the film but nonetheless manages to remind us that the graceful visuals presented to us are shallow enough to crumble right beneath our fingertips.
Here, we find that a stunning atmosphere only comprises the surface of ballet. In addition to the dance's various visual splendours, there is also a great deal of torture felt by the performers enacting them, and through Nina do we live through the trials and tribulations of the art form in the most extreme of ways.
As for Nina, herself among cinema's great characters, dancing has made up most of her life. But so controlled by it is she that it's hard to tell if she genuinely loves the form or if she continues to work through it only because her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) enforces it. Notice: though a grown woman, Nina still lives with the former, and lets her control nearly every aspect of her existence.
Initially, the relationship seems happy. But once we come to notice that Nina’s room is painted pink and decked out in stuffed animals and pastel throws – and that her mother doesn’t seem to have any friends of her own – it’s clear that Nina is living in a twisted sort of psychological prison that seems even more dangerous than a literal one.
When we first meet her, Nina's life revolves around the local production of Swan Lake. While she's found success in the past thanks to her techical bravado, as of late she's been struggling with putting herself into her performances. When she dances, we can see her veins twitching as she takes every precaution needed to move with flawlessness. But there is no heart at the center of her tip-toed spins — she's unable to set herself loose from her mind, controlled by the pressures of her home life and her own lack of self-confidence.
Her instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is intrigued, both because he wants to key into the prison cell that is her mind and also because he, predictably, wants to sleep with her. Also fascinated is Lily (Mila Kunis), a rebellious newbie. As the object of this pair's affections is Nina caught in the middle of a sick game of tug-of-war, unsure if she should listen to the temptations of the bodies of Lily and Tomas, or if she should remain the helpless child her mother wants her to be.
In the process, she descends into a madness that makes Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight look sane.
Visually, Black Swan is a triumph, combining icy beauty with utter grotesqueness, reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Technicolor horror stylings of the 1970s and David Cronenberg's bodily horrors of the '80s. There are one too many close-ups of feet, close-ups so uncomfortably tight we can hear every snap, crackle, and pop felt. But the juxtaposition between watching a ballet performance and living through one is complementary toward writer/director Darren Aronofsky's overarching dedication to studying the dangers of suffering for your art. In Black Swan, Nina very much both physically suffers and psychologically suffers as an effect of trying to achieve perfection.
But in playing the leads did Portman and Kunis suffer, too. Portman is excellent as Nina, capturing her transition from, as her mother would say, "a sweet girl" to a girl who cannot get a grip on her psyche. In preparation for the role, Portman trained for months to look and act like a ballerina, and the results are shattering — the devotion shown on the screen is something to applaud. She becomes a soul so tortured by everything around her that we forget that this is the same actress who made her breakthrough as a tough-talking little girl in Léon: The Professional, the same actress who achieved franchise fame in the resurrection of the Star Wars series.
Kunis, then, is a perfect foil for Portman, utilizing her dark looks and magnetic personality to mirror the bad-girl persona the Black Swan possesses. We are just as easily seduced by her as Nina is — we, like the latter, want nothing more than to take a stroll with her on the darker side of the street.
But with Black Swan do we also holistically take a walk on the darker side of the street of cinema: frenetic and disconcerting, it is among the most boldly original, most unforgettable movies of the decade. So unparalleled in its every achievement, it makes for an operatic, melodramatic film experience just as stunning as Swan Lake itself. But much, much more thrilling. A