Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Running Time: 108 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There's a scene in Black Swan where ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) explains to star dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) why she just isn't right for the lead role of the Swan Queen in his production of Swan Lake. How her technique is flawless but she's too much of a perfectionist to let go. Too overly rehearsed and calculated. Concerned about hitting her mark each time instead of just giving in and freeing herself to the material. Sound like any actresses you know? Black Swan is 2 hours of director Darren Aronofsky trying to knock the acting out of Natalie Portman. He doesn't, but goes one better in converting all of her flaws as an actress into strengths, effectively rendering all her inadequacies irrelevant. She gives a performance that's technically perfect, which is kind of a cruel irony considering the movie's central theme.
This might be the first movie that exists entirely as a critique on an actress's style and method with even the central performance itself acting as a commentary on the person giving it. It also brings up the fascinating question of whether someone who isn't necessarily a great actor can give an Academy Award worthy performance. Of course, the answer is yes (Sandra Bullock won last year for crying out loud) since Oscars are supposed to be given for individual performances, not as career achievement plaques or quantifiable measurements of talent. And with a track record of wrecking Star Wars, playing a poor man's Zooey Deschanel in Garden State and straining as the world's most uncomfortable stripper in Closer, that news should come as a relief for Portman. She usually falters when asked to leave her comfort zone, but Aronofsky was wise not to let her and the result will probably be an Oscar she's earned. A bit of a backhanded compliment, but there's little worth discussing outside her work and it's definitely not for a lack of other things going on. She is the film and without her it wouldn't have just not been the same, it couldn't have been made.
From the second it starts it's obvious exactly where Black Swan is going, how's it's getting there and even when. This isn't a mystery and its moves are as carefully choreographed as the dance steps but it makes little difference given how much more is on Aronofsky's mind. What happens in the final act isn't necessarily surprising but how it's presented is shocking, as is how far awesomely over-the-top and committed the film is to its own genre-bending insanity. There's little to discuss in the way of plot other than that Nina, overwhelmed by pressure from Thomas, the company's slimy director with unusually sexual teaching methods, and her overbearing stage mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), begins to physically and psychologically unravel when faced with the challenge of playing the lead in Swan Lake for a prestigious New York City ballet company.
Having gotten the innocent White Swan down pat, it's the more sensual, aggressive Black Swan Nina struggles to grasp. Her potential understudy, Lily (Mila Kunis) does very much grasp it and their rivalry slowly evolves into something more as Nina's grip on reality continues to slip away and she slowly descends into madness. Kunis' role is also clear from the get-go (and she plays it note perfectly) but I wonder why more people aren't talking about Cassel, who's so frighteningly sleazy and believable as this maniacal director who psychologically stretches Nina further than she ever expected to go. Everyone's so taken by Portman's work that his memorable supporting turn has gone unnoticed, likely because of its subtle effectiveness. Much like her character in the film, she probably wouldn't have been able to give the performance she does without him pushing her.
Describing this as a companion piece of sorts to The Wrestler (as Aronofsky has done in interviews) makes sense from the standpoint that both focus on how an artist's obsession with their craft can destroy them from the inside-out. Both require enormous dedication to technique and craft and it's fair to assume the amount of physical training Portman (who reportedly shed nearly twenty pounds from her already waifish frame) and Kunis underwent in preparation for their roles rival Mickey Rourke's for that film, minus the negative stigma attached. And it's also fair to assume there's as much (if not more) Portman in Nina as there was Rourke in Randy "The Ram," making the already uncomfortable scenes of her being sexually and verbally criticized even more uncomfortable knowing that Thomas could just as easily be talking about the actress, with her robotic frigidity called out for everyone to know about. Nina can't seem to channel the Black Swan and Portman wouldn't ever be able to tackle Kunis' role so it's odd seeing that basically acknowledged on screen and made part of the plot.
Just as The Wrestler wasn't "about" wrestling, neither is the Black Swan "about" ballet, but instead deeper themes, chiefly the futile, sometimes emotionally dangerous quest for perfectionism. But also how much people want from people who succeed and just when you think they're done they want more...and then MORE still. And just when they're gotten all they can they throw you away, as encapsulated by Thomas' treatment of his former Swan Queen and prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder--of all people!), forced into retirement and driven to self-destruction and insanity. The whole film could basically be viewed as a running commentary on not only Portman but the plight of Hollywood actresses in general, cruelly discarded once they've surpassed their point of perceived usefulness and marketability. As I watched I thought how hilarious it could have been to cast Lindsay Lohan opposite Portman in the Lily role, but Kunis deviously owns it so well and there's more than enough campy shock value elsewhere.
As I left the theater I overheard many elderly audience members talking about how little they cared for the film. Of course, they didn't. If anything was ever bound to cause a generational split it's this since older viewers looking for art aren't likely to embrace the crazy 70's style horror detour taken when Nina sprouts feathers, mutilates herself, and picks shards of glass out of her skin (and that's not to mention the masturbation and lesbian sex scene). Younger viewers looking for that kind of craziness may find themselves getting restless during the extended ballet sequences (though I was surprised just how absorbing and suspenseful they were). What both parties can definitely agree on is that there's enough Portman for everyone, even if you're not a fan.
Strangely, the performance just further confirms what I've suspected of her all along, only this time the one-dimensionality works in her favor like never before. But it still couldn't have been easy for her to put herself out there like this emotionally, inhabiting a character so uncomfortably close to how she's publicly perceived. We frequently praise actors and actresses for taking unexpected risks by leaving their comfort zone, but it's sometimes even more special when a performer is pushed to the limit within it, owning a role they seem destined to play. I'll probably never be a Natalie Portman fan and always fail to grasp everyone's fascination with her, but with Black Swan she's at least now earned my begrudging respect.