Black Swan (2010) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use
Running time: 108 min.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Natalie Portman (The Other Boleyn Girl, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) stars as a ballerina named Nina Sayers, whose lifelong ambition at becoming the star ballerina in a big production is on the verge of coming true, after she's chosen to have the biggest shot at the role of the Swan Queen in an ambitiously reimagined production of "Swan Lake". The master of the ballet, Thomas Leroy (Cassel, Ocean's Thirteen) has all but completely given her the role, as she embodies the role of the virtuous White Swan fully, but he's still skeptical that she has what it takes inside to pull off the sexually seductive Black Swan, White's dark twin foil that's actually a dual role performed by the White Swan lead, which is crucial in order for the story to have the proper balance.
Waiting in the wings, as it were, is Lily (Kunis, Max Payne), a dancer who excels at free-spiritedness, sexuality and spontaneity -- the kind of dancer who'd be perfect at portraying the Black Swan -- someone who is far from obsessed at being masochistically perfect in every detail. In order to secure the role, Nina's going to have to transcend -- to lose herself in the role -- without actually losing it all in the process.
Darren Aronofsky's (The Fountain, Pi) twistedly Kafkaesque ballerina story, laced with over-the-top theatricality, psychological terror, and all of the bombastic drama you would expect for a film based on an opera of emphatic dance. In some ways, it can be all too obvious in its approach, and yet, it sticks with you in a way that few films manage to do these days, much less a film that takes center stage among the world of ballet. It's hard to watch sometimes, and yet, it's also a must-see.
Tapping into the intensity of the highly competitive world of ballet, where its participants regularly sacrifice their livelihoods in order to be the best at their profession. Black Swan is, if nothing else, an exercise in thematic contrast. The beauty of the aesthetics of ballet is undercut by the ugliness of its behind-the-scenes neurotic, and in one case, psychotic, personalities. Toenails crack, joints dislocate, muscles pull, skin tears on emaciated bodies, and you can feel every injury and wince at ones that you think might be coming. Not to mention the performers that are ready stab each other in the back for a chance in the spotlight. That's a metaphorical stab, though one wonders just how much the "supporting" casts relishes actual injuries in others. It's a dark-as-black, cruelly sadistic film about one of the world's most beautiful of art forms.
Black Swan, as a film, is rough around the edges, but that's also part of its icky, sticky appeal. The film is about the search for transcendence through artistry, and while Aronofsky doesn't always succeed at transcending the material to make something that qualifies as an unequivocal masterpiece, he doesn't hold back his attempt. And occasionally draws out some moments of genuine brilliance. However, it's also about repression, such as the obsessive mother (more like smother), Erica (Hershey, Riding the Bullet), in Nina's life, whose every waking moment appears to be spent in making sure her daughter meets the level of perfection she was not quite able to in her own career. Nina has a hard time breaking free when her every moment of self-expression is stifled by Erica's rigid form of devotion to her daughter's success.
In Nina's world, there isn't that grounding element she needs to keep it all in check. She seemingly has no friends in her life, and her cohorts in the theater see her as too cold and unapproachable to befriend, save for her rival, Lily, though her motives are somewhat in question. She seems to be suffering from some sort of mental disorder, although her unhealthy environment, lack of other interests other than her craft, and lack of people who truly know her means that she not only has no basis for comparison, but also that no one is there to keep her off-kilter behavior in check. In short, she's a ticking time-bomb of psychosis that just might cross over the edge if pushed too far. Aronofsky effectively uses mirrors to reflect the images in Nina's mind, as well as her extended personalities, and in some cases, her fractured one.
The film highlights Nina's mental imbalance early enough such that it doesn't go too far off the track when her bouts of psycho behavior cross the line into becoming truly scary. However, Aronofsky's approach is, as mentioned earlier, rough around the edges, so some viewers, particularly those not expecting such a dark and violent (not to mention sexual intense) film, might be turned off by his approach, particularly when the lines of reality and fantasy are blurred as to become nearly indistinguishable for us in the audience. However, if you're feeling a bit leery, keep in mind that a central theme of the film is about trying to let go of one's rigid adherence to perfection, which is precisely what Aronofsky does by going as far as he does. He reaches for transcendence within his very film about reaching for transcendence, and though he might reach too far in certain instances, too far is far better than not at all.
Like other of Aronofsky's films, Black Swan is a bit of a flawed masterpiece. One could see that it has the potential for masterpiece status, but it falls short in some key areas, namely, masterpieces usually reveal something about ourselves, or of human nature as a whole, through what we see and feel. But we never quite feel as much as we see, and most of our reaction to Nina's plight is a reaction to the visceral moments of sex, violence, and self-mutilation that occurs. While it does reveal the extreme case of a psychotic breakdown, Aronofsky's treatment is more sensational and stylish than revelatory and relevant, and the result is a cold, dark, and practically unemotional piece that one doesn't so much identify with as one is unnerved by.
One can't rave about Black Swan without giving an equal amount of kudos to Natalie Portman and her all-out performance as Nina. It's hard to play sympathetic when her character is so devoid of much of her humanity, trying so valiantly to be the best at her singular obsession that her attempts to assimilate passion become almost robotic in execution. Portman reportedly lost 15 lbs' on her already thin frame to give herself the appearance of a ballerina, and she relied on her early experiences training in ballet to help her perform her moves (with the help of a body double for the toughies). Just as Nina punished herself physically in order to achieve perfection, so did Portman in her highly rigorous diet and exercise routine, cutting out all social activity in order to maintain her nearly impossible physique. And just as Thomas wants her to put more passion on display, Aronofsky's succeeds in pulling out a surprisingly unfriendly performance from the normally beaming Portman, who manages to be, at the same time, perpetually frightened and frightening at the same time.
But the ambition of a true artist is there, and it is that which we can appreciate most of all. Through the nearly two hour peek into Nina's mind, we find many surprises and shocks. He masterfully sets up his foils, his duality, and his schisms in such a fashion that we're never quite sure exactly if certain characters are real, or imagined in the mind of Nina -- or, for that matter, how real Nina is. Does the fact that many of the other characters resemble Nina physically mean they are extensions of her? Could Nina be the figment of her deranged mother's nightmarish memories of her own quest for perfection as a young adult? And perhaps the diva-fallen-from-grace character portrayed by Winona Ryder ( as that moments when she realized she never could achieve transcendence? There are many intriguing questions and just as many potential answers, and the ruminations on what's real, and just who is real, will play in your mind as the credits start to roll, and beyond. It is a strikingly potent film that sticks in your craw for days after seeing it, and, perhaps for the rest of your life, you will be reminded of its hauntingly dark imagery whenever you see a ballerina performing on stage.
©2011 Vince Leo