Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a beautiful young woman, a ballet dancer with the utmost technical precision. She's tightly wound, filled with insecurities, who lives a highly regimented life with her mother (Barbara Hershey) in Manhattan's Upper West Side, geographically, and cinematically very close to Rosemary's dwelling "The Dakota" in Rosemary's Baby. Nina's continued ambition is the center of the film and the first half of the film shows the drive she's using for said ambition. She's in the company of the Lincoln Center ballet, under the tutelage of Thomas (Vincent Cassel), whose tough-minded, seductive approach to dance seems to frighten, seduce and madden Nina. The new show, an edgy and revisionist production of "Swan Lake" is all Nina wants; and the drive and flurry of perfection is starting to unleash all kinds of mental damage in Nina's distorted and central thinking mindset.
Thomas is hard with Nina, making it known that if all he was looking for was the "White Swan", all pure, she'd be perfect; but it's the "Black Swan", seductive and dangerous, that escapes Nina. Aronofsky endlessly shows a barrage of rehearsals and dancers trainings, the repetition is important to enter Nina's mind, as well as gasp at the ingenuity of the directors talents. Almost fetishizing in the same degree he did in The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke's training, we follow Nina, we see her bloody toes and watch every plie, beautifully staged by Aronofsky and his master director of photography, Matthew Libatique, whose hand-held, yet steady work effectively studies Nina's. The look of the film feels incredibly naturalistic, with it's muted, unsaturated colors matching the flashy, but controlled shots; it looks real, but heightened to a degree to suggest something eerie.
Everything starts to change for Nina, as well as with the film, by the entrance of Lily (Mila Kunis), an upshot dancer just joining the company. She challenges Nina for the lead in "Swan Lake," not by her dancerly precision and grace, but with her edge and Thomas-approved unabashed sensuality. Lily tries hard to make with friend with Nina, who appears uninterested to the point of irritated. That's where the fun of Black Swan starts to really take off, and drift into it's unsettling territory-- it's to the credit of Kunis' performance that we never really quite know whether Lily's actions are true or not; she walks the murky path just enough to where we believe Lily is a real viable threat, out to All About Eve her way to the lead role, or just a down to earth naughty girl. Either the toll of Nina's already fractured psyche is palpable and just getting worse. With Lily getting closer, Thomas' showing creepy advances, as well as the endless rehearsal time, we follow Nina down the rabbit hole headed to her balletic abyss. Not to mention the creepiness of ex-leading company member Beth (vividly and chillingly played by Winona Ryder, in a glorified cameo), now a disembodied mess in intensive care, thanks to her "self-afflicted" accident.
It's really difficult to describe Black Swan in a tangible way because most of the film is a bit abstract, similar contextually to perhaps other fractured psyche films like Persona and Mulholland Drive, with much indebted structurally by The Red Shoes, the Michael Powell directed tour-de-force, also a fairy tale about ballet dancers. But its also an incredible, deeply felt mood film. The mirrors that Nina is constantly surrounded by help add a creepily, almost self aware quality for the film, we see, but also achingly feel the pressures of Nina's severeness. And yet, what makes the film it's own, is its chief quality, which is the character study of Nina Sayers, in a role of unmatched, and honestly unforeseen bravura by Natalie Portman.
She dances the part, both literally and not, and under the tutelage of Aronofsky (perhaps like Nina with Thomas) gives her most potent, powerful, dangerous and sexy performance. With her soft, child-like voice, which complements, in an utterly freaked out way her very child-like existence at home, Portman creates an unforgettable and utterly captivating portrait of young woman whose almost imprisoned by her mother (her relationship with Hershey is significantly eerie, and almost felt as a tease; a whole other film could be made here), severely lacking in basic social skills, sexually inexperienced, to a point of maladjustment; but whose light at the end of the tunnel is her art. As Nina goes down the rabbit hole, Portman compellingly loses herself on screen, underplaying it all the way, while simultaneously going for broke. It's the darkest, most intensely challenging performance she's ever given, and it's unease will provoke the cinematic universe, I would assume for quite some time. In a strange, perhaps even perverse way, Black Swan feels like the toughest, most stinging character study since Daniel Day-Lewis' portrait in There Will Be Blood; I want to importantly note that I'm not comparing both films, just stating a comment about how a role is individually felt by myself.
|Portman taking her hold over her audience.|
The point of the film I suppose is the very power of art, on it's audience (of which I suspect many will likely not care for Black Swan, it's Aronofsky's headiest since The Fountain), to it's participants. And how the pursuit of one's art is all consuming, the point of danger, or perhaps it should be if you're any good at it, or care for it. And Aronofsky obviously does care, and ridiculously good at it. Whatever happens with the cultural outcome of Black Swan, I honestly feel that every shot, every line of dialogue (written by first-timers Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz) was absolutely the way it's intended to be, and the thrilling horror and suspense already feels to me, six days after viewing, as a thing of classic beauty to be discussed and challenged for years and years to come. It's all consuming, and as lulled by it's dreaminess of first sight as I was, I haven't shaken it since, and never really want to either. A