reviewed by Tom-Tom
It is almost impossible for me to watch this film without remembering director Darren Aronofsky’s other masterpiece, The Wrestler which became Mickey Rourke’s comeback film. Both movies focus on performing artists: a professional wrestler and a ballerina whose dedication to their art takes them down long, hard paths of darkness and possible insanity towards becoming perfect in their respective fields. While Mickey Rourke’s character faces an emotional and physical struggle, Natalie Portman, in her Academy Award winning role, faces a psychological and sexual struggle in addition to the physical challenges of the craft of ballet. Playing the lead Nina Sayers is a tremendous role for which Portman trained to be ballet worthy for months. Ballet is not only her forte here as she appears as an innocent, shy, sheltered and dogmatic woman child sleeping in pink colors surrounded by stuffed animals. She is enabled in her eternal childhood by her creepy mother whose so-called good intentions seem to have been holding her back for years. One day, a chance comes for her to change her fate. It’s a chance, however, which may also end in her damnation. How’s that for a premise?
Nina isn’t just a ballerina in some struggling edge of nowhere trying to make her way to the top. She is in the top among the top. The only final goal is being prima-donna, the lead of any particular ballet production with her name and picture on the 2-story-high posters. Her perhaps bipolar mother comments cheerfully, “You’ve certainly been there long enough.” As with all arts, there is the strategy of mastering technique only and then developing your own style which, while not adhering to any textbook technique of approved excellence, certainly defines your as a performer regardless of whether you sing in tune or dance perfectly in step or play the right chords. Nina is a perfectionist putting everything into technique. She’s a delicate flower and never curses or asserts herself. There are darker waters flowing just below the surface, though, as we will find out later.
It is announced that the ballet company will be performing Tchaikovsky’s famous work, Swan Lake, which, as many side characters will comment (for our benefit, it feels), people have heard of but no nothing concrete about. It is the story of a girl Odette who is changed into a swan by the sorcerer Rothbart who himself changes into an evil black owl (although he looks more like a crow or raven here). She and her fellow cursed maidens may only return to human form at night. Her salvation relies on a pure Prince (as in many fairy tales) to confess his love for her only if he has never done so before. Villainous Rothbart disguises his own daughter as Odette to ensnare the Prince’s love. The prima-donna must, then portray both completely different parts: the innocent girly girl and the temptress vixen.
What we’ve seen so far from Nina suggests she is a shoe-in for the White Swan but being a sultry sex-pot in toe shoes doesn’t quite seem up her alley. It definitely seems up Mila Kunis’ character Lily’s alley, a new face “from San Francisco,” which itself suggests a world completely different from the mean streets of New York. She barges in right in the middle of Nina’s audition for the part. Nina imagines Lily and others laughing at her. She sometimes sees her own dark double in a train station or among the dancers. These visions are pretty terrifying as we see them through the girly girl eyes of Nina’s shy, soft spoken character which magnifies the terror. We see her start to peel around her fingernails, we see goose flesh come and go in waves across her back and around her collarbone. It’s all pretty creepy. We get a Philip K. Dick like feeling that we’re not sure what is real or not.
Aronofsky keeps these visions from being just shock value fodder or indulgently long. They have a cumulative effect stacking more and more on the suspense meter as we anticipate something horrible will happen, much like the build up to the finale of The Shining but less patient. In a weird way, it’s a sort of coming of age picture for Nina who learns to assert herself, get what she wants, and rebel against her prison warden mother. Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the truculent director who doesn’t mince words with regards to his opinions of dancing. He berates Nina as a coward and uses colorful and quite unprofessional descriptions in regard to the type of dancer a Black Swan must be. A dual antagonist and encouraging character, his performance is key to the progression of the main action.
The ballet is all beautiful as “visceral” as Thomas promises when describing Swan Lake in the beginning. Ever present is the sense of dread, danger, and terror, which is not what one usually expects in a ballet company. Black Swan is an original, entertaining, and suspenseful film which doesn’t bother to explain everything, and doesn’t need to. Natalie Portman gives the performance of her life in doubly dual roles. Any one of her emotional, physical, and sexual depictions are laudable but all together merit not only an Academy Award but all the immortality due to the classic performance it is.