“Black Swan” is one of those
unforgettable films that pack such emotional wallop that the viewer is both
thrilled and exhausted. Whether
you happen to enjoy ballet or not.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, the
ballet dancer with such a perfectionist streak that she literally has no
other life. She’s been
laboring in obscurity with a
ballet company, which has just decided to replace its featured star, Beth
(Winona Ryder), who doesn’t take the news well at all.
She literally steps in front of a car, and is hospitalized with
severe leg injuries, an ironic ending to an iconic career.
Nina is desperate to replace her as The Swan Queen, but there’s a
complex dynamism to the role that eludes her:
The White Queen is all precision, innocence, and grace, and the Black
Queen is full of guile, sensuality, and passion.
Can the same person successfully play both parts with equal skill and
aplomb? Thomas (Vincent Cassel),
the Director, even after choosing Nina for her precise movements and
incredible work ethic, continues to encourage, even harangue, her into
“letting herself go” so she can fully assume both roles, as her
self-conscious, uptight self and as her subconscious evil twin.
Nina is so tightly-wound and driven that she has no real friends.
She lives with her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), whose
own ballet career fell to earth when she got pregnant with Nina, so now her
unfulfilled ambition is purely vicarious.
Nina literally rehearses until her toes bleed.
She nervously picks at her fingernails until they, too, are raw, and
she has not only never known a lover, her emotional development is so
stunted that she’s experienced no sexual exploration at all, not even with
herself. The manipulative
Thomas tries playing with her libido, just to see if there’s a motivating
motor there, and her primary rival in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis)
alternately competes with her for Thomas’ cavalier attention and tries to
seduce her into letting down her hair at a nightclub, and later, following
cleverly applied dosages of inhibition removers.
Now Nina doesn’t know what to think
or believe. Is Thomas her boss
or her lover, or does he have no boundaries between the two?
Is Lily her competition or her paramour, and does she have no
boundaries between the two? Is
her mother her loving protector or her prison guard, and does she even know
the difference? And as for Nina
herself, her wanton obsessiveness teeters between unbridled compulsivity and
imprisoned emotion, which begins to literally drive her mad.
She can no longer discern harsh reality from her fear of it.
She begins to imagine herself as both the White and the Black Swan,
applied as both good and evil, as the two natures within her struggle for
control, like a tragic Jekyll and Hyde in a tight bun and a leotard.
Ballet is ordinarily presented as
sublime, refined, haute couture but passionless.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s raw-boned presentation reaches into the
depths of both hero worship and self-loathing, and “plays” the audience
for voyeurs and thrill-seekers as well as cultured despisers.
Self-love as a mandate; self-destructiveness as an art form?
Natalie Portman delivers a powerful,
nuanced, memorable performance, one which will haunt the viewer long after
the credits have rolled. She
deserves all those accolades she’s already received, and then some.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace