The best way to appreciate this remarkable movie is to not do what I did. I expected Black Swan to be the ultimate contemporary ballet movie. I left the theatre disappointed because I didn’t see enough tutus fluttering onstage.
It was only days later, when I could not stop thinking about the film, that I realized Black Swan wasn’t a mere ballet movie. It was much more–a brilliant psychological thriller in which ballet was the setting. It could just have easily been the story of any person consumed by the addiction to perfection. Witness director Darren Aronofky’s film last year, The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke struggles against all obstacles, including his heart, to achieve the false nirvana of perfection. For give Black Swan its due, leave your balletomane expectations at the theatre door and be open to the surprising wizardry that Aronofsky and his extraordinary cast and crew conjure.
Black Swan is a beautiful film. Loveliness is inherent in its subject–the grace and delicacy of ballet give the film a visual imagery that is wonderful and haunting.
It’s also deeply disturbing, for the same reason–haunting visual images, some of them seen so quickly, you wonder if you are hallucinating as the troubled heroine is. (Kudos to cinematographer Matthew Libatique, The Fountain.)
While beauty reins onstage, Black Swan’s backstage is filled with beasts–the usual ambition, jealousy, isolation, and cruelty. And on closer look, there’s more–self-abuse, betrayal, violence and insanity. As if reflecting the incipient self-absorption of the ballet world, mirrors are everywhere in Black Swan, but rarely do they reflect reality. Instead they are like shards from a terrifying house of mirrors. They distort reality and twist the faces of paranoia, they shatter and in their jagged edges, they draw blood.
There are few exuberant corps de ballet scenes in Black Swan. Everything seems claustrophobic. A windowless rehearsal space, narrow stairways, tiny dressing rooms, the stage floor seen from the tight space backstage between the heavy hanging curtains. The world inhabited by young ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) is one defined rigidly by the concerns of ballet. She never reads a newspaper, or watches television or has chatty conversations with strangers on the subway. She doesn’t date, in fact, she might be a virgin. She lives at home in a padlocked dark apartment with her mother Erica, (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself, who gave up her career to have Nina. Nina’s bedroom is populated by stuffed animals, as if she is still in grade school. Her mother has a spare room plastered with angry, almost demonic self-portraits of herself.
The unnamed ballet company in New York City is run by a self-labeled genius choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). He’s a tyrant, whose vicious training methods border on sadism. He intends to open the company’s new season with a totally updated version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Everyone expects the company’s principal dancer, Beth (Wynona Ryder) to take the coveted part of the Swan Queen, but she is summarily “retired” from Cassel’s bed as well as his company, and the role becomes open to a younger dancer. Nina wants the part more than life itself–literally–and when she gets it, she and her mother are ecstatic.
The character of the Swan Queen starts off as an innocent young bird, fragile and girlish in a snowy tutu, then she becomes a sensual, dark raptor in black sequins and glittering midnight feathers. Leroy knows that Nina can play the White Swan, but he fears she doesn’t have the substance (or the maturity, she’s only about 19), to transform herself into the Black Swan. “I want to be perfect,” Nina exclaims as she drives herself to practice.
Leroy insults and humiliates her, even forcing a faux seduction on her–to point out that she needs more of life to play the Black Swan. “The only person standing in your way,” he taunts her, “is you.” He insists that she must be more like the new corps member, Lily (Mila Kunis), a vibrant free-spirit from California.
Threatened by Lily, emotionally bludgeoned by Leroy, suffocated by her mother, Nina loses herself in the role of the Swan Queen, “I had the craziest dream last night,” she says, “about a girl who has turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.”
Soon Nina can’t tell the difference between nightmare and reality. She’s had a fragile hold on reality to begin with. In addition to being bulimic (the dancer’s curse), Nina hurts herself with compulsive scratching. Have her long nails become bird claws? Are feathers sprouting like wings from the rash on her back? Are her toes growing together liked webbed feet?
A sliver of madness here, another there. Or is it just her creative imagination helping to make her more expressive in the role?. Will she play the role more perfectly if she gets in touch with her dark side, the character of the Black Swan?
Everyone in the cast of Black Swan is terrific. It’s thrilling to see Barbara Hershey back on screen in a role that allows full display of her talents. Vincent Cassel is more seductive and creepy than ever. Mila Kunis plays her seemingly schizophrenic part with ferocious sensitivity.
But Black Swan belongs to Natalie Portman. She spent ten months learning how to dance (and starving herself), forcing herself to accomplish in less than a year what professional dancers spend their lifetimes doing. She’s breathtakingly impressive–an exquisitely graceful dancer, intense, and raw. The range of her emotions runs from childish joy to devouring jealousy to murderous rage and you believe every moment of her portrayal. She is the perfect actress for the role, and she plays perfectly.