I’ve never been much of a fan of ballet. I admire the art form, I’m astonished by the skill of the performers, but, like opera, I wouldn’t be particularly fond of sitting in a theatre and watching an entire show. Perhaps I’m not arty or tasteful enough, but I’d most likely end up just imagining how bruised and battered the performers’ toes must be, instead of paying attention to the spectacle itself.
Still, there’s something about Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” that enticed me in a way that few movies have done before. Like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” of 1948, Aronofsky’s disturbing drama portrays the dancing art in a beautiful light that entrances and allures, heightening the impact of events that take place off-stage.
The film centres on a fresh-faced dancer, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, “V for Vendetta“), aged 28. She’s committed to her profession, almost unhealthily, and is determined to reach what all ballerinas see as the pinnacle of success — to be The Swan Queen in a New York production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
The current Swan Queen, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder, “Edward Scissorhands“), has just “retired,” and her position needs to be filled. Nina sees her chance and goes about auditioning for the role. The director of the production, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, “Mesrine“), is at first unconvinced by Nina’s performances, but gives her the part when she bites his lip. Hurrah!
Nina rehearses and rehearses, striving for perfection, to impress Thomas, to become the Swan Queen. Her fellow ballerinas look upon her with jealousy, while Lily (Mila Kunis, AKA the voice of Meg on “Family Guy“) strikes an unlikely friendship with the leading lady. However, Lily’s motivations become questionable when Nina gets to know her a little better.
With “Black Swan,” Aronofsky confronts melodrama and darkens it, spinning it away from the stage of cliché. The film is intimidating in tone, much more distressing than one might imagine upon learning of the general plot. Several scenes had me cringing at the imagery, some including self-mutilation. The images the film conjures up will make one turn one’s head from the screen, if briefly. If you were to glance at me as I watched “Black Swan,” you’d swear I was watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”
Portman’s character is a fragile one, seemingly virginal, called “weak” by Thomas, controlled by her overbearing ex-ballerina mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, “The Portrait of a Lady”). She is told that she shines as the innocent White Swan, but falters when portraying the seductive Black Swan. Obsessed with perfection, she lets the double-character role consume her out of desperation for flawlessness on the big night itself.
Portman is spellbinding in the role, playing a girl whose entire life revolves around her skills as a dancer. Her character begins to lose sight of what’s real, her grip on reality loosening as her life spirals into a hallucinatory nightmare, the likes of which David Lynch should be proud.
Kunis, on the other hand, portrays a more laid-back girl, showing up late for rehearsals, her prowess as a dancer more befitting the Black Swan than Nina’s techniques. She’s the party-going type, introducing Nina to alcohol, drugs and sex, awakening something long-buried within Nina’s persona. Kunis’ performance dares to be as fascinating as Portman’s, and succeeds, her underrated talents worthy of much more attention than they get.
Cassel is delightful as the runner of the production, of which his character is aptly passionate. A French prick by profession, he tries to get Nina to let go of her innocence and indulge in her sensual and sexual side, his attempts altering her mannerisms, morphing her into a more violent and unstable person.
As Thomas tells Nina to let go of her painstakingly memorised moves and lose herself in the performance, Aronofsky does the same. He utilises a similar shooting method as his very own “The Wrestler,” using handheld cameras to their stylistic advantage, putting us up on stage with the performing ballerinas as if we are one of them, frolicking for the audience in white tutus.
The “Requiem for a Dream” director gets up close and personal with the well-choreographed dancers as they strut their stuff, his work not feeling perfected or polished to death, but fresh and almost improvised. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique (“The Fountain,” “Iron Man“) works wonders with Aronofsky’s beautiful and bold direction, the dark and icy visuals dancing off the screen.
“Black Swan” is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It’s part psychological thriller, part drama, part horror, all pliéing together with seductive and bizarre results. It’s an awe-inspiring portrayal of a woman transformed from an innocent to a beast, from White Swan to Black Swan, her determination driving her mad. Oh, and if your five-year-old daughter asks to see “the new ballerina movie,” I’d advise against taking her.
10 outta 10