[6 December 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Growth and maturity. The creative “process”. Digging deep within and finding untapped sources of inspiration. The many faces of the diva. The many moods of the (metaphysically) dying. For Darren Aronofsky, these are the thematic jumping off points for his masterful new film, Black Swan. At its heart, it’s a story of a sheltered ballerina’s confrontation of self: the emotional traumas, the artistic and interpersonal growth involved. Outside such subtext, the brilliant director of such equally fine films as Requiem for a Dream, Pi, and The Fountain has found a way of revitalizing the horror film, putting the emphasis on the unsettling and the unreal over the gory and the gratuitous. The results literally redefine our perception of what is truly terrifying, and what it means to push yourself to the limits…and then beyond.
Natalie Portman (in an Oscar worthy turn) is the shy, unassuming Nina Sayers, a dancer driven by a need to be “perfect”. As part of Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) NYC ballet company, she longs for a chance to showcase her untapped talents. The opportunity arises when reigning with Beth MacIntyre proves too unpredictable (and drunk) to star in the upcoming production of Swan Lake. Auditioning, Nina wins the all important lead - and makes an uncomfortable new “friend” in rival Lily (Mila Kunis). While the starring part makes her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) ecstatic, Nina stars feeling paranoid about her performance. After all Thomas is certain she can play the role of the White Swan, but he also feels she will have major difficulty playing the darker, more passionate Black Swan. With Lily seemingly perfect (and plotting) for her part, Nina struggles to maintain her focus. Unfortunately, such drive seems to turn her fears inward, manifesting them in ways both unhappy - and horrific.
The beauty of Black Swan doesn’t come solely from its subject or how Aronofsky puts it onscreen. Certainly, the grace of ballet and the skill set carried by its practitioners offers its own particular troubling beauty, and many of the social stigmas associated with such artisans - body issues, eating disorders - are hinted at here. But this is not a meandering movie-of-the-week, an attempt to show how the struggle for balance brings one girl to the brink of madness..if not over. No, what Black Swan accomplishes is staggering in its subtlety. It takes a typical scenario - a performer finally getting the chance they’ve always dreamed of - and then turns said career fantasy into a disturbing, deconstructive nightmare. One could easily envision the entire undertaking as being a reflection of a single complicated character - a study, if you will. In Nina, we can see the silent sufferer (herself), the potential wild child side of who see could be (Lily), the doomed superstar of her possible future (Beth), and finally, the bitter, forgotten, and broken spirit (Mom) that dreams of days long gone by.
The great thing about this film is that this is just one intriguing interpretation. Like a finessed Freudian experiment, Black Swan is capable of competing free associations. It’s Rorschach by way of genre beats. You can view it as a typical backstage melodrama, the dynamic between our heroine and her chief rival fated to end badly. You can also argue for an interpretation ala A Double Life, where the part played onstage bleeds over into the existence of the individual vanished within the role. Aronofsky hints at this concept b y having Nina dream the bifurcated dilemma of Swan Lake at the start of the film. From there, every scene seems to reference the Tchaikovsky ballet - from the appearance of temptation circa Lily to the fascinating dysfunction between Nina and her subversive stage mother. Once her inner Black Swan starts to take over, it’s like a stick of dynamite has been lit. Nina will eventually go off - and when she does, it’s bound to be drastic, if not deadly.
The parallels between the perfectionism felt by our lead and the way in which Black Swan exploits it makes for one endlessly shocking experience. Aronofsky plants seeds without ever being wholly obvious. Nina has a problem with self-inflicted injuries, including using her sharpened nails to raise welts along her back. There’s also several allusions to the true price ballerinas pay, from split toenails and sprained joints to more haunting, internalized pains. As stick thin visions of unrealistic splendor, the dancers dissolve into an antiquated notion of art, a weird unrealism that Aronofsky explores with vigor. Some have suggested a connection to the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes, but there is more to Black Swan than that. While it does deal with art and the uncontrolled compulsion, its more fear-oriented than fairytale.
As her proves over and over again, no one commands the camera better than this determined director. There are moments in Black Swan where Portman’s split personalities battle to break out, to become something more known and normal, and in these sequences, Aronofsky uses the lens as a light into a world of unclear motives. Kunis’ Lily may be naturally gifted, but her mannerism has stage door tramp written all over it - or is it only in Nina’s mind that we see the supposedly normal byplay between mentor man and subservient soon-to-be star? In fact, everything about Black Swan could be part of the processing that our lead goes through before taking on a part. Actors call it “the Method.” Dancers may have something similar, though in Nina’s case, the technique is clearly torturous.
With his terrific cast (Portman has never been better, absolutely as lost in the performance as the frightening little girl she’s playing) and his multilayered meanings to every plot point, Aronofsky finds a way to top himself, and that’s saying something. Black Swan is beguiling and seductive, using recognizability and the known realities of a life in service of art and moving way beyond the easier explanations. It represents that rarest of Hollywood elements - vision - and crackles with an energy that only arrives when all the cinematic stars are in near-faultless alignment. For his part, Aronofsky adds his own unique fuel to the already blazing year-end Best-of fires. In the end, Black Swan may be nothing more than a psycho-sexual thriller with “be careful what you wish for” overtones. How the film illustrates such collisions marks it as one of 2010’s treats.