Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Becoming the best of any discipline requires hard work, natural talent, and the ability to shift when new things get in your way. Take all of those factors and add the inescapable idea of age impacting the ability of women to hold long careers in ballet. This reality makes the moments to take the spotlight all the more vital and worth pushing yourself harder than ever before.
With a new opportunity to be the lead of a New York ballet company’s production of “Swan Lake,” Nina (Natalie Portman) sees this as her big chance. She has devoted her young life completely to ballet and has worked diligently to achieve perfection in her form. It runs her into trouble when handling the duality of both the White and Black Swan in the dance. After landing the role, she goes through a journey of liberation and hallucination to reach perfection on all sides.
Darron Aronofsky refuses to tell light-hearted stories, as he ensures to craft heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding character pieces with the intention of stressing out the audience. If he doesn’t make you grimace in some way about the events unfolding on the screen at least once, I’m sure he would consider his feature a failure. It could be from the harrowing tale of addiction in Requiem for a Dream, the harsh reality of life in The Wrestler, or the irreparable damage done to this planet by humanity in Mother!. He’s not known for his subtlety but the visual and visceral assault to the senses he employs makes all of his films worth experiencing. In Black Swan he creates his masterpiece. A view into how the duality of a role helps unlock something primal and carnal of someone that appears to be so delicate.
The character of Nina represents someone who still embodies a childlike personality. She lives with her mother in a New York apartment despite being 28-years-old. Her mother takes care of her while she dedicates her entire life to the art form of ballet. She has a regimented routine of practice and focuses on the details in a way that makes each movement purposeful and coordinated. It makes her the perfect candidate for the White Swan, who falls for a prince and subsequently gets heartbroken and kills herself. The White Swan represents purity and delicateness, which matches Nina. She speaks in such a high tone, it feels like a small child speaking at times. Her dedication to technique initially gets her the opportunity to audition, but her awakened sexuality helps her land the role as she begins to exhibit the Black Swan.
Nina’s sexuality becomes imperative to her capturing the duality of the role she desperately wants. Her relationships have been tame in life, as one can imagine once you see what her room looks like and how she lives with her mother. It’s all been repressed and the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) seeks to bring out the looseness necessary to portray the Black Swan in Nina through some predatory ways. Thomas touches her and encourages her to masturbate when she’s alone, as he sees that to be the key to her liberation. The scenes where it occurs feels incredibly uncomfortable because of how childlike Nina appears to be despite being a grown woman, but the path she takes on unravels her psychologically. The Black Swan side of the role requires Nina to be the opposite of her entire upbringing. Technique necessary but not perfection, a movement that seduces yet follows a proper formation. Nina pushes herself to the limit and the hallucinations begin.
As the story progresses it becomes clear Black Swan is a horror film as much as it liberates the character of Nina. Her psychological breakdown amid the pressure coming from this role has her seeing images of herself projected upon others. It shows an internal battle that happens to have spilled out into her reality. This horror turns what should be the career-defining opportunity into a complete nightmare ceasing to end. Everything her mother taught her evidently shows itself to be holding her back from her true potential and in that way she lets loose in a manner that frightens almost everyone around her. A repressed sexual being, who refuses to be under the control of anyone ever again.
The performance by Natalie Portman controls the narrative of this film. She portrays the delicacy of the White and Black Swan through her work as this character by capturing the innocence and the carelessness necessary for this story to be told properly. Rarely does an actor win their Academy Award for their best performance but it lined up perfectly for Portman, as she commands the screen in every individual scene. She refuses to allow anyone else have any of the spotlight because it’s all about Nina and she refuses to let you forget about it. It’s truly a career-defining performance and one that solidified her as one of my favorite actors currently working today.
So much in Portman’s performance and the narrative feels so primal, as if the awakening she experiences feels thoroughly physical as much as it appears to be psychological. Before all of the madness ensues, it appears by showing the physical repercussions of being in ballet. Standing on one’s toes leaves a mark on your feet, and we see it in excruciating detail. Additionally, it can be seen through the moments where it appears Nina’s becoming an actual swan through feathers appearing on her back. Of course, it’s an Aronofsky film, so the appearance of these feathers would not be this nice surprise, but rather a brutal and painful emergence seeking to haunt Nina. It plays into the fantastical nature of the film, as it makes you wonder what events actually occur and what simply may be a projection from the mind of the protagonist. It made me think twice on several occasions and I guessed wrong almost every single time.
Black Swan becomes quite the trip Darren Aronofsky invites you on. The narrative provides no one you can trust and a person fighting off the duality of a role and herself. All of it comes together in such a lavish style leading up to a pitch-perfect conclusion. It allows Natalie Portman to truly take up every inch of the screen and give an all-timer performance. A vicious, delicate, and sexual feature unafraid to show the abuses and damage on the path to perfection.