“Black Swan” is a surprisingly frightening movie.
The story may appear straightforward or even familiar – shy, young ballerina wants challenging dual role of the White (read “pure”) and Black (read “the dark side”) Swans in the company’s new production of “Swan Lake.” The old Queen of the company is on her way out – in ballet, Winona Ryder (as Beth Macintyre) is apparently old, no matter how many times dancers say that Dame Margot Fonteyn danced into her fifties – and whoever wins the coveted role in “Swan Lake” will share the star’s dressing room with her, amongst other things.
That Natalie Portman’s Nina wants out of the corps de ballet is obvious. Not a joiner, not outgoing, she doesn’t socialize at all, she doesn’t even sit with the other dancers. She happens to share a dressing room with them, no more. The other dancers, while physically disciplined, appear “normal.” They go out, they have fun, they have boyfriends and girlfriends, and they don’t spend much time in the bathroom vomiting whatever they’ve eaten.
Nina’s only “friend” is her mother Erica, who has already done a number on the daughter for whom she “gave up” her career. This is a juicy role for Barbara Hershey, whose Erica is an odious terrifying witch in Nina’s sleeping and waking hours. She is overbearing and keeps all too tight a rein on her daughter. When Nina wins the leading role, her mother comes home with this gigantic cake, all pink and white like Nina’s little-girl bedroom. Her daughter would never eat such a thing, but Erica throws a fit when Nina initially refuses. It’s a cake for twenty, when these two women clearly have no acquaintances with whom to share it. Between whatever natural shyness she may have had and the upbringing by her mad mother, Nina is incapable of normal social intercourse, let alone eating dessert.
The flip side of Nina is Lily, the new kid, an audacious free-spirited dancer newly arrived from San Francisco and perfectly played by Mila Kunis. Kunis is just delightful as Lily, who is brash, confident, enjoys the pleasures as well as the discipline of her body. While Nina strives for technical perfection in the dance, Lily is having a good time, every day of her life. What Thomas Leroy, the director of the ballet company played by Vincent Cassel, needs is a combination of these two women. Alas, this doesn’t exist – perhaps this dual role is one of those which requires youth to physically do the job, but greater maturity to capture all the nuances of good girls as well as naughty ones. Cassel manipulates all the girls vying for the leading role in his ballet, and continues to do so even when he’s cast Nina in the coveted lead.
Once cast as the the two swans, Nina disintegrates before our eyes as she rehearses for the roles. The White Swan she could do in her sleep, but she must work for the sexuality and freedom and emotional maturity to portray, to live, to dance the Black Swan. This is where the film goes all out with extraordinary images and action and brilliant editing. There is blood, water, skin tearing, then puckering like a chicken’s, subtly at first, then blatantly until Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan is phantasmagorically complete. It’s gorgeous.
This is a 21st century film, perhaps a psychosexual thriller. Director Aronofsky’s characters are blatantly sexual, manic, disturbed in various manners. Lily, not disturbed, tries to draw Nina out and/or sabotage her, pick one. But the club scenes with these two young women are wonderful, giving Ms. Portman a chance to find the inner Nina. Along the way, Aronofsky does lovely things with reflections in mirrors, windows, Nina’s mind. Nina will see or experience something, we go along with her, then suddenly it’s clear she was hallucinating. This begins early on, and grows through the film. Sometimes Nina appears to see her mother’s face, sometimes her own, sometimes others. Lily’s heat infuses and confuses Nina. It's a blast.
Nina has needed a friend like Lily all her life -- that slightly dangerous friend who was delighted to be alive. Nina only lives as she performs “Swan Lake,” and by then it’s too late. This is not to say Lily’s in the slightest bit trustworthy. But Nina would never have found the Black Swan in herself without Lily.
This film is a roller coaster ride, although sometimes the viewer won't realize it until it's too late. So I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but some things cannot pass. Although I found the film very powerful, I must take issue with the ending, where reality and fantasy overlap where they could not. The intent is clear throughout, but I’m sorry, had Nina’s fantasy actions been perpetrated on herself, there’s no way she could have danced the second and third acts. Call me grumpy.
Importantly, although I very much like Ms. Portman’s work here, I think much of the credit for the impact of her performance belongs to the director (the aforementioned Darren Aronofsky), editor Andrew Weisblum, and director of photography Matthew Libatique. Directorial choices and camerawork amplified Ms. Portman’s portrayal: The cuts, the speed, the growing madness we see are all due to the people behind the camera, not before it, so I cannot quite understand the superlatives abounding out there for Ms. Portman’s Nina. Considering the other work offered us in 2010, while Ms. Portman has done her job well, she has not done a better job than, for instance (and I’m only taking the time to note one), Jennifer Lawrence. What Ms. Lawrence does alone (that is, without camera work or effects) in “Winter’s Bone” is worthy of superlatives. “Black Swan” is much more fun to watch than a film like “Winter’s Bone,” but that doesn’t make its glamorous leading lady a better actress or her performance superior to many others in films with less advertising.
Do see “Black Swan.” It provides chills and some thrills and some terrific work by writers, actors, dancers, technicians, and all other contributors to film. It turns us in on ourselves and makes us question just how thin or thick that line between sanity and madness is.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. Too many things go bump in the dark.