Black Swan Review
Never would I have thought a film about ballerinas would be so malicious and distressing. Dealing with a subject renowned for its precise and meticulous form and beauty, Black Swan is more physical and bodily than the ethereal dance would deceive. Not just the bruised and gnarled toes and crackling joints of these master dancers, Black Swan is the rapid decline of a dance perfectionist as she aims for perfection, a carnal transformation from innocence into something much darker.
That perfectionist is Nina (Natalie Portman), the talented and dedicated young ballerina in a prestigious company in New York. Perfect in form, she is the obvious lead for their production of Swan Lake, specifically the role of the White Swan. Unfortunately, she's also an emotionally repressed young woman, unable to embody her sexuality and let go. She is stunted. Thus, she's inherently flawed to perform the second lead of the ballet, the Black Swan, a sensual and seductive antithesis to the White Swan. Mostly fine for the first act of the film, this is the beginning of the end for Nina as she struggles to become both swans.
This gradual deconstruction of Nina's sanity as she fights for her lead in the ballet is the central axis of the film. The pressures of the ballet are nothing compared to her well-meaning yet repressive mother (Barbara Hershey), her ferocious director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), and Lily (Mila Kunis), her understudy who constantly threatens Nina's role.
As she implodes, Nina's physical body gradually transforms, with red scratches and goose bumps that appear on her back, fingers and arms. As she transforms into this corporeal Black Swan, she breaks down in her pursuit of perfection. This sort of obsession in itself is horrifying, yet the mental somersaults that result make Nina's descent all the more terrifying. Paintings talk to her, encounters she has prove to be unreal, and the world around her crumbles into a schizophrenic dream. It's very scary stuff.
The last half of Black Swan is ultimately a weird and dark contrast between the supposed perfection of the dances with the Nina's insanity. As the film turns violent and sexual, the line between what is real and what is not becomes increasingly blurred, so much so that everything we see is questioned. Many have said that Black Swan is a horror film. While there is not glorification of the blood and gore of other films, the descent into madness is just as terrifying, where the outward manifestation of the weird and unreal exhibit an even worse problem in the head.
Whatever the reasons for Nina's madness—the harsh dance schedule, her overbearing mother, her repressed sexuality—her mental breakdown takes her farther and farther from the White Swan figure she initially represents. It's easy to see how Black Swan follows the narrative thread of Swan Lake itself, and the tragedy of that ballet is multiplied in Black Swan.
Considering the film never spends more than three seconds off Nina, there is a sort of claustrophobic feeling to the film. While the audience is never literally inside her head, the world we see is as Nina sees it, and with every mental transformation we are taken into a lie that this broken woman is struggling to understand. Her transformation from the wide-eyed innocence of the White Swan to the sensual and dangerous Black Swan is the crux of the film, and it's easy to see an Oscar-worthy performance from Portman unfold in front of us.
It is almost a shame that so much is placed upon Nina, as Portman's supporting cast is fantastic. Cassel borders on dangerous as the sexual and dominating Thomas, the director of the ballet. He's the figure Nina is never able to please, and as he works to break down her inhibitions, he only presses her hallucinations further. Kunis, slowly breaking her way from the goofy comedy of That 70's Show, is fine as Lily. Comfortable in her sexuality, girl can not only eat a cheeseburger, she can threaten Nina's role due to her own raw emotion in the dance. Unfortunately, her character borders on farcical, but by the time we really get to know Lily, Nina is so far down the rabbit hole that little can really be trusted and understood. Finally, Hershey takes a fresh spin on the overbearing stage mother. She's not just a crazed parent trying to reclaim her youthful dreams, she is a loving and patient mom, truly looking out for the best interests of her daughter outside of the ballet. However, even good-intentioned parenting can have destructive affects on children, and grouping all of these pressures upon Nina seems to be just one primary source of her unwinding.
Then, of course, there is the bit role of Winona Ryder as the former prima ballerina Beth. Usurped by Nina, she represents what could be for Nina, and while the role is appreciated, I honestly felt it did little for the film than allow for one of the few grisly scenes of gore and violence.
As malicious and twisted as the film gets, it is also beautifully shot. While I am no ballet dancing aficionado, unable to tell if Kunis and Portman's dance performances were outstanding or merely passable, I can say that it is clearly beautiful. The dance areas where there all dance are all black and cement, a stark contrast to the white frills and satin of the dancers. Even without the insanity slowly unfolding in the mind of Nina, to ballet is exhausting and harsh. Apparently both Kunis and Portman spent six months in intense ballet training, and while they may not have true form, they are certainly impressive to this viewer.
Darren Aronofsky is commendable for creating a film that is the one true partner to his previous Oscar-nominated film, The Wrestler. Both chronicling the drive to succeed, both with possibly catastrophic results, Black Swan is just as powerful as Aronofsky's last film. In the end, it is not about the ballet. It's about the internal warping people experience when the pressures around them become too much. Within the beauty of this art form, so formalized and precise, we can see the derailment of a mind and body of beauty. Black Swan is a stunning and malicious beast.