Darren Aronofsky makes Natalie Portman suffer for the ballet
Published: December 15, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Opens Dec. 17.
Four films in and Darren Aronofsky’s short life in pictures turns out to have been a rehearsal for Black Swan, his masterpiece. The obsession with paranoiac spiritual mastery in Pi mirrored in the failed The Fountain, the bottomless empathy for two generations of tragic women in Requiem for a Dream, the use of the body as a thing beaten for redemption in The Wrestler—all these seemingly disparate themes fuse into this grisly fantasia of ultimately transcendent beauty. Watching Black Swan is like breathing in and being unable to breathe out until the final, perfect image.
Natalie Portman, in the performance of her life, plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina in a top company at New York’s Lincoln Center. Nina lives in a perpetual state of nearly losing her shit—not that she’d mind, as long as she attains an artistic perfection she can’t yet imagine.
She shares a cramped Manhattan apartment with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who was once a dancer herself. Does Erica treasure dedicating herself to her child’s success? Does she hate her for being born? Will there be scenes of horrifically eroticized Oedipal terror? Yes to all three, but these are Aronofsky women, so everything will be much more complicated.
The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, all bemused, cocky swagger), is reconceptualizing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as a sort of minimalist nightmare. He needs a dancer who can embody both the libretto’s innocent White Swan and evil Black Swan.
Nina, who, for all we can tell, has been so dedicated to dance she never got around to having sex, aces the White Swan. The Black Swan, not so much. And so she must learn about her dark side, which means sex, which inexorably leads to Lily (Mila Kunis), a spiritually lithe new dancer from San Francisco.
At first, just hanging around someone like Lily, whose life goes beyond ballet’s constricted black-and-white world of work and nothing else, gives Nina a liberating, sexualized buzz But even as Nina lands the Swan role her reality principle starts to fracture. Who is Lily, really? Is she out for a good time, to steal the Swan from Nina, or is Nina just going batty?
At the same time, the movie’s backstage melodrama kicks in with discomforting rawness as Nina deals with the legacy and fleshy reality of ex-Swan Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, truly scary, seriously great). As if all this wasn’t enough, Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin’s script adds a layer of Cronenberg-esque body horror to the movie.
More important to Aronofsky is the idea of dancers pushing their bodies to grotesque extremes to create the illusion of effortless grace, and so he lavishes Nina’s zero-fat, injury-wracked body with lingering closeups. Nina/Portman’s use/abuse of her body verges on the contemptuous, an act of will over breaking bone, torn muscle, and ceaseless pain.
You already know from the ads that Nina and Lily have sex, but the movie’s actual turning point has to do with Nina and Beth and the single most horrific act of self-mutilation in cinema since Cries and Whispers. And from there, we’ll say no more.
Aronofsky’s usual team works with intuitive brilliance. Matthew Libatique’s Steadicam Technicolor work underscores the monotone, uncannily cocoon-like quality of backstage and the mad colorful delirium of night-clubbing. Between Clint Mansell’s score and Ken Ishii’s sound production/mixing, you’re awash in string music, Tchaikovsky sound quotes, and theater-rattling, bird-wing flutter musique concrete. It’s relentless. Like John Boorman and Nicholas Roeg before him, Aronofsky makes cinema as though it could be a hallucinatory drug.
Portman’s performance grounds it. She trained for a year to gain her ballerina bona fides. Her dancing isn’t prize-winning, but it’s wonderful, haunting, and strange.
Ultimately, her Nina will be remembered as one of cinema’s great ciphers. You see her as a trembling child-girl, a doe-eyed ingenue, an imperiously demanding taskmaster, but who is she?
One sense is someone of terrifying loneliness: Her entire life has been her mother’s apartment, training rooms, backstage, onstage. Lily is fascinated by the fact of her alien quality. Black Swan’s ending may anger or shock, but it felt emotionally sincere for someone like Nina—in a strange way, the only way for her. It’s a triumph in a truly great movie.