Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Warning: spoilers ahead. Ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is cast in the role of Swan Queen in a “reimaged” production of “Swan Lake.” Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the company’s director, finds her to be the “perfect” white swan–she embodies, because of her subdued nature (what Thomas refers to as her frigidity), the pure and ethereal Odette–but not the black swan. (In the ballet, as Thomas explains for those not familiar with it, a doppleganger in the form of a black swan seduces the prince, who believes her to be his love Odette). A chance rebuff at Thomas’s sexual advances convinces him however that Nina has it in her to embody the seductiveness and “bite” of the black swan character (ironic, given that others assume she had whored herself to Thomas in order to win the role, which was close to being given away to another dancer). Here then is where we see the politics of the ballet (or any kind of performing arts, really) playing out: In order to win a role, one often bumps off another in the process. Not only does Nina get ahead of the dancer Thomas had initially envisioned in the role, she also had unwittingly bumped off Beth (Winona Ryder), an aging ballerina past her prime. It’s this idea of the constant threat of replacement that so engulfs Nina to the point of madness. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), an outgoing dancer in the company who we come to understand as Nina’s polar opposite; she is in essence the black swan that Nina could never be. Nina never can quite place Lily’s intentions, and paranoia sinks in when Lily seemingly sabotages Nina’s performances. The story ends with Nina, spurred on by her constant paranoia, fully embracing her darker side–her inner black swan–and killing Lily. But just like in the “Swan Lake” ballet itself, realization sets in just as it had for the white swan, and she realizes that she had not stabbed Lily but rather herself.
Portman, first off, is just a marvel to watch in this film. There were some absolutely horrific scenes (a particularly gruesome scene involving Winona Ryder’s character is one I would particularly want to wipe from my mind) that I was able to sit through only because Portman’s performance constantly seduced me to stay and keep watching. The squeamish should endure the gruesome aspects of the film if only for Portman’s out of this world performance. Waifish and Hepburn-ish at times, Portman’s Nina is beautifully nuanced, a caged swan unable to fully flex her wings. With the added layers of Nina’s delusion and self-harm, Portman had quite a canvas to work with. There is a very convincing frailty, pureness, and naivete to her character (such as when she steals with childlike wonder various accessories from Beth’s dressing room, a metaphor for “stealing” the role from her predecessor). So much so that the moment Portman inhabits her “Black Swan” is just a sight to behold, a transformation in character so terrifying that it sends shudders down one’s spine. Newly confident in her skin (or rather feathers, I suppose), Portman’s transformed Nina is intense, a revelation of a soul. Portman here is, well, utterly “perfect.”
Knowing the tragic ending of “Swan Lake” (Odette kills herself upon discovering the black swan’s deed), one’s expectation is for Nina’s story to mirror that tragedy. A rehearsal scene shows Nina in character jumping to her faked death. My expectation, given the attention the film was paying to this particular part of the ballet, was that come the actual performance, the mattress would for some reason not be there, and she would fall to her death. That of course would have been the easy way out. She does end up falling to her death, but not because of a disappearing mattress; how somewhat fitting that the girl who harms herself ends up killing herself in the end. (And though perhaps moot in the larger scope of the film, yes, I do think she kills herself; a nice play on the theme of striving for perfection in one’s art to the point of killing oneself).
A note on the soundtrack: Clint Mansell warped Tchaikovsky’s music in such a way that surprisingly amplified the suspense of the film. Crescendos hit you with such force as to slap you in the face. Sound effects, too, contribute to the disquiet of the film (such as when Nina cracks her toe nail during a fouette, breaks her mother’s hand, and when feathers begin to surface on her skin). Portman’s sex scene with Kunis (what the heterosexual contingency might perhaps look forward to as a treat) is made by the disturbing sound effects–the slurping, the slithering, the crunching–like a sexual encounter with the devil.
In my book, Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” has the distinction of perhaps being the best film about dance (even the best film, period). So I came into “Black Swan” with that as a standard, which was a sure way to disappoint myself. (I’m also a big fan of the “Swan Lake” ballet, so there was also that). But “Black Swan” holds up on its own merits. There were times during the watching of the film when I felt too many layers were piled on (the themes of perfection, duality, upstaging, paranoia, mother/daughter relationships, sexuality, etc.). But what is often seemingly too much then evens out upon closer examination in retrospect. Aronofsky’s work here is disturbing, at times funny (i.e. Nina’s masturbation scene), and often grotesque, and despite or even because of all that, the journey he sets us on is worth it.