Reaching the Pinnacle
The subject of Black Swan treads a shaky ground due to its potential for being corny or campy. It's a movie about ballet dancers, and anytime you have a story concerning dancers in general, it tends to focus on backstage drama and to include the oldest cliché, a star who has to look over her shoulder at her potential replacement. To be honest, Black Swan isn't above any of this -- in fact, what makes it all the more admirable is how director Darren Aronofsky handles his own story about a rising ballet star who develops a paranoia about a rival. He grabs it by the horns and runs with it, full force, through whatever path he felt it needed to travel on.
And what makes this film wonderful is that Aronofsky pulls it off. Black Swan emerges as a psychological thriller painted with bold colors on a dark canvas, a fantasia high on visual trickery, and a deliberately exaggerated story set in a world that specializes in telling exaggerated stories. At its center is Natalie Portman giving the best performance I've seen from her. The ride she embarks on isn't necessarily surprising, but it is involving, and it culminates in a climax as appropriate as it is drunk with its own calibrated expression.
Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York City ballet company producing a new take on Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Constantly practicing to perfect her technique, Nina's dream is to become the lead ballerina, and circumstances eventually lead her to this goal, although this puts her directly under the strict (and frankly lewd) tutelage of ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). As she receives pressure from him to open up the emotional side of her performance, Nina begins to become wary of Lily (Mila Kunis), a newly arrived dancer Leroy admires.
The thriller aspect then comes from Nina's increasing paranoia, as she sees doubles of herself and increasingly gains pressure not only from Leroy but also her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), an ex-ballerina. It becomes more and more apparent that, in her life, Nina had been "encouraged" to enter her artistic profession, and that her goal of achieving an artistic and career pinnacle may not have been entirely of her own desire. It can be assumed, however, that throughout her life she has accepted the position she's in and has tried to make the most of it, even gotten comfortable with it, accepted it as her calling, but with the load of a lead performance now on her shoulders, any doubts she may have had about being committed to this art is starting to create cracks. This is a unique yet not necessarily uncommon situation, and not often addressed -- our stories are full of people trying to achieve their dreams, but these tales are not usually about people trying to achieve dreams of compromise. One of the more easily relatable examples might be the kid who is pressured to win spelling bees.
Here, Nina's path to artistic perfection gets played for horror, paralleling the tragic story of Swan Lake, dispensing with subtlety to achieve a darker fairy tale tone. Aronofsky's approach appears more David Cronenberg than David Lynch, and he goes to lengths to portray ballet as an art interpreted through pain. What the dancers go through is bruising, and Aronofsky takes it a step further to show cuts and blood to emphasize the price of the art. This extends to Nina's hallucinations, several of which are briefly grotesque. Meanwhile, to emphasize the idea that true art is feelings over skill, the equating of sexual liberation to genuine emotional expression in art is also used in forefront, and perhaps here its obviousness gives off the biggest whiff of gratuitousness, although it wouldn't be fair to dismiss any truth related to it, either. If Black Swan is saying the chaste and clean cannot produce true art, it's not shy about saying that.
Perhaps the best trick Aronofsky pulls off here is in making Black Swan locally harrowing -- that is, we the audience may never really fear for the health or safety of Nina, but instead the suspense we feel comes from empathizing with her confusion, her initial inability to grasp what she can't yet understand, and her psychological helplessness. And Aronofsky would not have been able to convey this correctly without Portman's star turn. Unlike Nina, Portman shows no cracks in her portrayal as she embodies the withering crush of internal and external pressure, of having achieved so much yet still finding herself feeling her way through the dark. I've always liked Portman, but I've never felt she had fully convinced me in her previous performances -- she was close, but there was always something missing. This time, nothing is missing, and perhaps she's now reached the pinnacle of her own art.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.