Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

One of last year’s most buzzed-about art-house films finally made it to the Cineplex during the holidays. Black Swan tells the story of Nina, a ballerina who becomes psychologically damaged as her career ascends after she is chosen for the lead role of the Swan Queen in her troop’s raw rendition of Swan Lake.

There’s nothing particularly novel about the story in Black Swan; it’s that typical ingénue tale of a young girl being pushed beyond her limit for the sake of perfection. What devastates us about the film is the pain of the artistic process as expressed through the face of Natalie Portman, who turns Nina into more than just a victim of beauty, but rather an addict chasing flawlessness.

Nina’s trouble, as her director repeatedly tells her, is that she is technically sound, but lacks the passion necessary to move the audience. She cannot let go, and once we get to know Nina, we understand why. She’s the daughter of a retired troop dancer, played well by Barbara Hershey, who due to her own insecurities has never let Nina grow up. Nina still lives with her mother, who treats her as a child. She creepily tucks Nina into bed at night in her girlish pink room, complete with an array of stuffed animals. Meanwhile at work, Nina doesn’t fit in with the rest of the competitive and catty ballerinas, all jockeying to rise out of the cast ranks.

So when Nina is chosen as the Swan Queen, we feel sorry for her, as she is woefully unprepared for the adult stress atop the physical exhaustion that the role requires. She must deal not only with her mother’s passive aggressive jealousy, but with the advances of her Svengali-like director, played with caustic bite by Vincent Cassel, and finally with aging star Winona Ryder.

Underlying Nina’s tormented coming-of-age is the theme of sexual awakening, best exemplified by Lily, a liberated dancer, played with wild abandon by Mila Kunis, who proudly lets it all hang out. She is the antithesis of Nina; she feels the sensuality of her own body, but could care less for the precision of her craft. Their relationship at first seems to be just what Nina needs, but it soon degenerates into another competition, another stress.

Thus by the last act of the film, so much anxiety has built within Nina’s frail persona that she begins to come undone and even to hallucinate. None of this would work without Portman, who even makes sipping Champaign at a party feel unendurable. Aside from her dreadful role in the latter Star Wars movies, Portman is perhaps best known for playing that snarky and charming girl in generation defining films like Beautiful Girls and Garden State. But in Black Swan she strips her character to the bone, so much so that her every reaction feels raw and terrifyingly new. It’s her most adult performance in a part that ironically asks her to stay emotionally muted in childhood.

Credit should also go to director Darren Aronofsky for his intimate handling of Nina’s inner world. Aronofsky does this by piling on the medium-to-close range shots, keeping us very close to Nina. He then subtly switches to a hand-held camera once we get close to Nina’s anguished expressions, which creates the feeling of her inner tumult. He’s so close to her that we even hear her breathing each time she’s dancing, and the breaths are unsteady and convey just how difficult ballet is from the dancer’s point of view.

It’s easy to compare these elements of Black Swan to Aronofsky’s last success, the 2008 film The Wrestler. Both films tell tragic stories of the physical toll of individuals in their respective professions. As the wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s most notable line was admitting that he was “a broken down piece of meat.” Aronofsky supported this dialogue with physical evidence of what the wrestling life had done to his lead. Black Swan includes no such character pronouncements, but the physical evidence of the dancer’s life is there nonetheless, from broken toes to joints that pop in the wrong manner. Like The Wrestler, this is an intimate film in more ways that one.

But what I enjoyed most, besides Portman’s performance, was Aronofsky’s use of subtext throughout the film. We are reminded early in the film that Swan Lake is a dualistic tale involving light and dark. Aronofsky parallels his film to the ballet by giving us as many double images as possible. I’ve never seem so many reflective surfaces used so well in a modern film, and this of course becomes terrifying as Nina begins to hallucinate more. But what I truly appreciate is Aronofsky’s subtle use of the double image to create layers in his storytelling. Even Nina’s mundane ride on a subway reveals more if we’re truly looking.

Due to both Portman and Aronofsky, this oft-told tale of the ballet becomes more than just a story. In the end Black Swan becomes what we’re often told is impossible: a work of dark beauty.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011