I see a lot of films. Few leave me stunned, and fewer still haunt me for days as Black Swan did. As the credits rolled, a friend asked what I thought of it. I’m usually pretty clear in my assessments, but on this occasion I found myself groping for a meaningful response. I mumbled something positive along with a couple of reservations, but it wasn’t until hours later that I realised that I needed time to digest this one, to come to terms with the full extent of its beauty and power, and the audacity of the filmmakers’ ambition.
The promo blurb describes the movie as a “sexy psychological thriller”, and it is that. But it is much, much more.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a New York ballerina who lands the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a stripped-back modern version of Swan Lake. The role is two-part: the White Swan, which Nina plays with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, to which she must bring a dark, beguiling sensuality that is outside her personal experience. Already consumed by dance, she is pushed into a state of dangerous obsession when Machiavellian artistic director Thomas Leroy (superbly played by Vincent Cassel) demands that she transcend her technical perfection and explore the darker reaches of her soul in order to fully engage with the Black Swan role.
This is some ask for the repressed Nina, who lives a sheltered life with her possessive, controlling mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a retired ballerina who is jealous of her daughter’s career success while simultaneously seeking vicarious stage glory through her. Drug-taking, sexually adventurous rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) becomes an unlikely Hermes for Nina, guiding her through the dark underworld of her psyche and catalytically liberating her from her mother’s suffocating influence.
As her emotionally wrought psychological journey progresses along a trajectory that roughly parallels the Swan Lake narrative, fantasy and reality meld, her grasp on reality slips and her identity begins to fragment. The audience is pulled into the feverish delirium of her nightmarish inner world, and as the intensity builds we struggle to distinguish the literal from the figurative. Is the sensually steaming, beautiful and unaccountably moving lesbian encounter between Nina and Lily real or imagined? Is Nina really sprouting feathers across her shoulders as she “becomes” the Black Swan? Is it Lily or herself she attacks with an exquisitely symbolic shard of broken mirror?
The tension mounts to almost unbearable pitch as opening night approaches and Nina’s performance anxiety and personal demons torment her to the brink of madness and beyond. It is here, in this dangerous unchartered territory of the obsessed perfectionist, that great art and performance is tempered. However, there is a toll to be paid, both by the artist and the audience that accompanies her on her odyssey to the dark side. To its detriment, the movie strays over the generic border into horror at times, and the intensity is too relentless for too long. At a certain point, the tension snaps like a fishing line yielding to the might of a splendid and terrible denizen of the deep. When the work climaxes, we are no longer captive in the moment, and a sense of melodrama creeps in. In the context of the ferocious beauty and power of this fearlessly creative movie, though, those are minor criticisms.
Natalie Portman is mesmerising as Nina. Not only is this a fine acting performance – you’d swear she was a pro ballerina at the peak of her game. Apparently Portman studied ballet as a child and has continued to practise for fitness. For 10 months prior to the shooting of Black Swan, she trained for 5 hours per day under the tutelage of pro teachers and trainers to prepare herself for the role of Nina. It shows…
Mila Kunis is also terrific (and her credibility in the role of ballerina is remarkable considering she had no background in dance prior to training up for this movie).
I’m not up with the technical aspects of cinematography, but the camerawork struck me as virtuoso, enhancing the emotional intensity and chaos of Nina’s psychic descent through hand-held tracking rather than fast cuts and groovy angles. I often find hand-held camerawork distracting, but it works brilliantly here.
Black Swan is a film that dares to reach beyond, to risk falling in its attempt to fly. Artistic ambition on this scale is rare, and demands respect. If the film loses tension through over-reaching itself in its final stages and teeters over into melodrama at the end, who cares? Not me! Not in the context of an astounding lead performance from Portman that will be talked about for years, and a challenging but unforgettable movie experience that elevates director Darren Aronofsky, who also conceived the premise of the film, into the exclusive ranks of the cinematic elite.
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