Friday Film Focus: Black Swan

Everything about classical ballet lends itself to excess.

The art is one of grand gesture. It is combined with the illusion of triumph over reality — and sometimes even the force of gravity. Ballet demands the performers to participate in rigorous years of perfectionism. This mental and physical training takes precedence over what many consider to be a ‘normal’ life.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a hot-blooded, head-spinning erotic thriller told with passionate intensity. What Aronofsky does to ballet is akin to what Kanye West does to rap; he turns it into his own beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. Swan is an instant guilty pleasure, and an impeccably shot, visually complex film. You might be upset at the sheer audacity of mixing mental illness with body fatiguing and the mind numbing rigors of ballet. However, its lurid imagery and extreme competition between two rival dancers is pretty irresistible.

Nina Sayer’s life has been devoted to ballet. But was it entirely her choice? Nina lives with an overbearing, emotionally smothering mother (played by the incredible Barbara Hershey). They share an apartment feeling like a refuge, and sometimes more so a cell. They hug and chat like sisters, but something feels wrong. Mom, once a ballerina herself, hovers over her daughter. She obsessively watches her every move — from Nina’s dieting to her nervous habits (like scratching her skin until it bleeds). However, as with many of the lurid visions in this film — bloody nails, punctured wounds, breaking bones — you’re never quite sure how real they are. They could be figments of Nina’s fervid imagination. Aronofsky suggests in the opening dream sequence that Nina might be cracking up. He keeps the camera eerily close to his heroine in order to suggest a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia.

Natalie Portman plays Nina. She delivers a breathtaking performance that truly is the stuff of legends. Nina knows she can’t make it in the competitive world of New York City ballet unless she damn near kills herself trying. Nina dances in a company at the New York Lincoln’s Center under company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The reach of his egotism is suggested by his current season, which will “re-image” the classics. Having cast off his former prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), he is now auditioning a new lead for “Swan Lake,” a role that requires the main to play opposite roles. Enthralled by Nina’s innocence as Odette (the White Swan), Thomas feels she lacks the seductive heat required for Odette’s alter ego (the Black Swan). She dances with technique as opposed to feeling.

“Go home and touch yourself,” he advises his repressed protégée. Eyes start to wander to another rival dancer, Lily (played with smoldering fire by Mila Kunis). Lily arrives from the West Coast and is everything Nina is not: bold, loose, and confident. She fascinates Nina, not only as a rival, but even as a role model of sorts. Lily, among many other things, is a sexual being. We suspect Nina may never have been on a date — let alone slept with a man. For her, Lily is a professional challenge and a personal rebuke. Nina eventually wins the role while Beth slinks around the film’s periphery. Beth hisses obscenities and accusations until she winds up in the hospital after walking in front of oncoming traffic. Similar to the mother character, Beth exists to up the ante on the paranoia and tension as mental chaos relentlessly dominates Nina.

As Nina’s drive for perfection continues, her health and friendships begin to deteriorate. Nothing else matters to her. Thomas eggs her on, using sexual abuse and intimidation to get her to “lose herself” in the darkness. What she really begins losing is her sense of reality. Thomas, the beast, is well known for having affairs with his dancers. Played with incredible arrogance by Cassel, he clearly knows how to manipulate the virginal Nina. All of this creates chaos in her mind. How can she free herself from the technical perfection and sexual repression enforced by her mother, whilst also remaining loyal to their incestuous psychological relationship? Black Swan will remind viewers of Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler.

Both characters show single-minded professionalism in the pursuit of their career, leading to the ultimate destruction of personal lives. The main story supports of Black Swan are traditional. It involves backstage rivalry, artistic jealousy, and the great work of art mirrored in the lives of those performing. The director drifts eerily from those reliable guidelines into the mind of Nina, who soon begins to confuse those boundaries. It becomes clear that her dream life is contiguous with her waking one. Aronofsky and Portman follow this fearlessly wherever it takes them.

Portman’s performance is a revelation. She had never played a character this obsessed before, and never faced a greater physical challenge (she prepared by training for 10 months). In her acting, you sense she has bravely stepped out of her comfort zone to play a character slowly losing sight of herself. As the film tips over into the horror of blurring the line between hallucination and reality, Black Swan becomes a high-wire act for Aronofsky and Portman as they lure the audience into Nina’s tormented mind. Taking off from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, Aronofsky proves once again he is a fearless visionary. The swirling hand held camera work of Matthew Libatique — coupled with the Clint Mansell score that channels Tchaikovsky’s ecstatic dread — adds to the chaotic whirlwind. Portman’s portrait of an artist under siege is unforgettable. It’s one thing to lose yourself in your art. Portman’s ballerina loses her mind.

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