How far can she go for the perfection? Most of you probably have heard about how much the ballet dancers try for their performances. They practice diligently for every movement during long preparation process. They must dedicate their bodies and minds a lot to create that momentary beauty effortlessly on the stage. It is a very demanding work – especially in case of the lead performer, who is pressured a lot to show the audiences every talent the performer has.
Darren Aronofsky’s new movie “Black Swan” cannot be more different from his previous work “The Wrestler”. Both deals with the tolls their characters have to pay for the performances in their respective jobs, but, unlike the stark realism of “The Wrestler”, “Black Swan” is an outright melodrama convulsing with tons of psychological tensions and terrors inside the heroine’s unstable mind. We are never sure about what really happens, but, once we accept the unreliability of her viewpoint, the movie dazzles us with lots of outlandishly phantasmagorical moments. It scares and tightens us as well as its heroine, and then it forcefully pushes her to the over-the-top grand finale while maintaining almost complete control and no-hold-barred confidence. It may sound contradictious, but it does work in that way.
The story is a generic backstage melodrama we are familiar with. After the disturbing opening dream sequence, we see Nina Sayers(Natalie Portman) beginning her daily life in the morning. She is a young hopeful ballerina in New York City company, and the new season is about to begin with a good chance to realize her big dream. For revitalizing his company, the company director Thomas Leroy(Vincent Cassel) decides to stage a newly interpreted version of Tchaikovsky’s classic work “Swan Lake” as the opening production, and he also decides to replace his prima ballerina Beth Macintyre(Winona Ryder), who is over 35 now, with someone young and fresh as new Swan Queen.
Nina wants that role wholeheartedly. She eventually gets the part, and she is joyous to hear the news at first, but she soon faces the problem inherent in herself while preparing for her dual roles during rehearsal. She has everything to play White Swan; she is a by-the-book perfectionist with grace, fragility, and innocence exuding out of her character. However, in contrast, she is everything Black Swan is not; she lacks sensuality, boldness, and depravity to embody White Swan’s evil twin.
Thomas chides Nina for this weakness, and she becomes quite stressful. Well, her life has been always under the pressure. She has already been being pushed a lot by the overprotection of her devoted mom Erica(Barbara Hershey), who had to give up her own ballet career for her daughter. In their stuffy apartment that looks like a cocoon for both, Nina is still Erica’s “sweet little girl” in their close relationship. There is not much privacy for her at home, and, with these stuffed dolls, Nina’s pink room is not that different from a little girl’s bedroom. At one point, she said she had several relationships with boys and experiences, but I seriously doubt about that. To me, she is as sexually repressed as the heroine of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”, a story about another fragile girl psychologically pressured while living in her apartment with her sister.
The situation becomes more troublesome for Nina due to her potential rival, Lily(Mila Kunis). In contrast to Nina, this talented ballerina from San Francisco is perfect as Black Swan while being imperfect as White Swan. She is direct, bold, easy-going, and flexible – and she has even the tattoo on her back. Thomas considers Lily as an alternative, and that makes Nina’s extremely unstable mind more unstable than before. For her, there is no choice but trying to search for something that can boost her performance while strenuously perfecting her movements. Her mind is pushed nearer and nearer to the breaking point. The madness creeps on the screen step by step. She finds herself attracted to the dark side represented by Lily. And the weird moments begins to assault her, but is it real?
The movie mercilessly sticks to Nina to emphasize her warped viewpoint. The cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera follows her and stays close to her throughout the movie. During the first half, when everything looks relatively normal, it observes the activities in the ballet company with the natural style reminiscent of Robert Altman’s “The Company”(recommendable if you want to take a rest after watching this movie), but, using frequent close-ups, its approach is far more tense with fastidious concentration on details including stitching of ballet shoes or bruised feet. We are getting more close to Nina’s heart and mind shot by shot; we are pulled into her obsession and mental crisis. As a result, even when we do not understand what the hell is happening, we exactly know what drives her and how she feels.
Aronofsky has shown us the characters driven to the extreme conditions with uncompromising attitude in his films. In his debut “Pi”(1998), its mathematician hero is driven to paranoid and insanity while destructively obsessing on his study subject. In case of “Requiem for a Dream”(2000), it blisteringly looks at the addicts falling to the bottom with its intense style. In “The Wrestler”, we cringe at how hard its hero falls in the ring while sadly realizing that it is the only way of living for him. “Black Swan” is no exception, and Aronofsky stops at nothing to hurl his heroine into the dark psychological maelstrom full of bizarreness and shocks, amplified by Clint Mansell’s darkly nervous score that manipulates and tortures Tchaicovsky’s work.
Overblown melodramas like this film always heavily depend on the lead performance, and Natalie Portman gives one of the superb performances in last year. Portman may not be a great actress, but she is a talented actress with her own strengths and weaknesses, both of which perfectly fit into her character. Not only she is physically believable on the screen(As we have heard many times, she prepared a lot for her role including several months of training), but also she is psychologically convincing every moment – she never loses her control even when her character’s psyche is overwhelmingly spun at full throttle toward the level of total breakdown. At this moment, it is quite clear that she will get an Oscar for her magnificent achievement few days later, and she deserves that.
Many people wished that there are more about the supporting characters surrounding her, but the movie is solely about Nina’s state of mind; they are more or less than the reflected images in her disturbed mind. The actors revolving around Portman do good jobs while firmly supporting her performance. Mila Kunis, who is also believable as a ballerina on the screen, is engaging as the character who can be a warm friend or a seductive rival or both or whatever. Vincent Cassel is a smooth and arrogant director who gets what he wants from his ballerinas by any means necessary – he behaves like he is entitled to do that. Barbara Hershey is also impressive as the mother with suffocating love who is very, very determined to see her dream realized through her daughter. And Winona Ryder has a brief appearance as a washed-out ballet dancer, which sadly resonates with the recent downturn in her career.
The movie faithfully follows the formula of backstage melodrama, so we know that everything in the story will ultimately culminate into one big performance to remember in the finale. The camera swirls around, and every pain and every agony is sublimated beautifully and triumphantly on the stage – with the tragic overlap between art and reality. Although it has already been overheated a lot throughout the story, the movie further delves into the more outrageous situation, and, I guarantee you, you will be surprised by how far the movie willingly goes for that big moment with its sheer energy while never caring about whether the story does not make sense to us at all. It is amazing that the film still remains controlled as required while becoming overblown as demanded to the level of 11 for the mind-blowing tour-de-force finale that will make lots of audiences feel numb or enthralled.
“Black Swan” is exhausting experience that you won’t forget easily regardless of how you think about it. Like Nina, both Aronofsky and Portman do an exceptional job of vividly presenting both White Swan and Black Swan, and the movie is definitely something to behold. Not wholly perfect, not wholly logical, but, what the hell, the movie daringly tries to something big and preposterous, and its twisted surreal beauty is something we cannot see everyday.