Black Swan (R)
Director: Darron Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
In a brilliant portrayal of an artist using her worst to become her best, Natalie Portman was riveting as Nina Sayers, vying for the role in of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, a ballet which requires its lead to have the grace and elegance of the white swan against the sensuality and cunning of her black counterpart. Nina has a hard time letting go, relaxing, or basically doing anything but concentrating on perfection through dance. She cannot seem to grasp the concept that perfection doesn’t always mean “without mistake”, and can’t fathom that letting go and being free is, in its own way, perfect.
Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), the black swan to Nina’s white. Lily, very similar even in name, is more into drugs, casual sex, and having fun than finding any semblance of perfection in dance, which garners the envy of Nina, in the form of psycho-sexual attraction and (possibly) violence. Because Nina has to divide herself into two parts in order to fulfill her role as the Swan Queen, she finds frustration in the fact that another human being (doppelgänger or not) seems to possess all of the qualities which she desires for her performance. Lily wavers back and forth between helping and hindering Nina’s quest for perfection, and their relationship, through all the twists and psychological turns, becomes the perfect symbol for the inherent duality in centering both aspects of a life, personal and professional, around the dedicated pursuit of art.
Nina’s struggle with pressure is constant and all-encompassing. From the “brilliant” (and somewhat sleazy) director of the show (Vincent Cassel) to an overbearing mother that makes Mrs. Bates look like Marion Cunningham, Nina finds intense pressure to be perfect by not being perfect. These pressures only pile on top of the immense pressure she puts on herself to be the best, opening the gates for a slew of psychological and physical tortures, even a touch of mental illness, to arise and begin to manifest her fears and goals into physical, often terrifying forms. She wants to become something so badly that it actually begins to happen, and it terrifies her (and every last one of us) in the process.
Another prevalent theme in the film is the actual physical pressure that is inflicted on a dancer’s body. Like Randy (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler, Nina must endure intense physical pain (cracked toenails, broken fingers and toes, a few other things that are too creepy to mention) in the name of her art. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation did a study and found that “…compared to the 61 common sports, only professional [American] football is more physically demanding than ballet.” We don’t find ourselves cringing in nauseous agony when a guy wearing a helmet sprains his hip, but if you can watch this film without wincing at least once, you’re either a pathologist or one of the people on his table.
Through all of the pain (some of it self-inflicted) that she has to go through, at a certain point Nina is unable to tell where to draw that line, and becomes disturbingly aware of the possibility that she might not be able to stop.
The film is beautifully, hauntingly shot and every performance is absolutely amazing. Mirrors were utilized throughout as a way to symbolize the duality and prismatic nature of one person becoming many things. After the film was over (because I couldn’t turn my eyes or mind away from the story long enough to think about anything during the film) I found myself thinking about the dual nature of a good and a bad self from David Fincher’s Fight Club, the allegorical surrealism of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and the ornithological transmogrification in Robert Altman’s cult classic Brewster McCloud. And I’ll never look at goosebumps the same way again.
Black Swan was so good it made The Wrestler look like Ready to Rumble (yes, I just referenced a David Arquette movie), and I really, really liked The Wrestler. This film is so brilliant because you can’t help but literally feel something when it’s over. Requiem for a Dream had the same effect, though to a less entertaining extent; there were no moments of levity, not really any decency in any of the characters (save grandma Burstyn), and most of us probably have a hard time relating to heavy heroin use or accidental speed addiction. Most of us.
But Black Swan is so much more. We’ve all dealt with pressure, and put it on ourselves, in our work, our family, our life. So we’re capable of empathizing more easily with someone who seems trapped because of her own innocence. Whether the feeling you have after the film is nausea and dizziness, a tight chest and sweaty, tired palms, or just plain ol’ fear is irrelevant; once the film is over you’re simply exhausted from going through this ordeal with a girl who forces herself to literally transform into something else in the name of her art. We should all be so lucky.