Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” had its share of sentimental imperfections that for this critic subsequently made it the best movie of 2008. “Black Swan,” a film so wholly different from “The Wrestler’s” gritty documentary realism compared to this film’s psychological phantasms, is Aronofsky’s companion piece to “The Wrestler,” examining the price of performance, pain and perfection.
Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the demanding instructor and director of a prestigious ballet company in New York, announces forthright that their company will be doing a new take on Tchaikovsky’s classic “Swan Lake” for the opening of the new season. But for those unfamiliar with the story, it may not be initially clear that Aronofsky and the film’s three screenwriters are doing their own adaptation on the ballet, harnessing its dark and morbid undertones beneath the elegant beauty of the dance.
Aronofsky’s opening scene establishes this tone; with Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), the film’s and the new production’s Swan Queen, he stages an enchanting yet ultimately haunting dance of physical talent by Portman, cinematic finesse by cinematographer Matthew Libatique and special effects wizardry.
Watching such a classy performance initially made me wonder how Aronofsky would do directing a musical, but his style is all in the right place for what becomes an almost psychological horror story.
Nina constantly strives for perfection in her dancing. Her technique is flawless, making her the ideal White Swan, but her lack of inhibition and seductive drive make her incapable of tackling the part’s evil twin, the Black Swan.
Off stage, her demeanor is the same. Dressed completely in white and trapped in a room full of stuffed animals and bright colors, she is completely innocent and naïve to anything other than being a noble person. Here, Portman is cute, and not beautiful as she usually is on screen, deflated and without sexual flair.
Thomas feels what Nina is missing as well, and when she confronts him to ask for the part of the Swan Queen, had she been able to seduce him, she may have gotten what she wanted without struggle. But he does sense something there, and casts her in the role, despite the prowess of Nina’s rival Lily (Mila Kunis). He pushes her at every step, demanding she lose herself and gives in to her sexuality.
The way in which Aronofsky charts how Nina will go about her transformation is the sheer mystique of “Black Swan.” At times it can be magical, elegiac and sensual, and still it can become dark, terrifying and disturbing.
This massive shift in tone fits perfectly with the way in which Nina will develop schizophrenic impulses caused by her painful and dedicated drive for perfection. Aronofsky’s symbolic representation of what appears to be her mutating into a swan suggests the physical torment Nina is putting her body through.
Aronofsky proved with Mickey Rourke that a high level of abuse is necessary to achieve the level of success people expect. Nina is plagued with the same necessity (and the film earns it’s R-rating because of it), but what she does not have is the group of supporting and friendly wrestlers helping her through the pain. The ballet company is full of bitter, conniving young women fighting for Nina’s spotlight. Thomas is ruthlessly advancing on her to invoke Nina’s primal emotion. Even Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey in an unsettling performance) is a subtly controlling stage mom embedding her own lost dreams into Nina’s performance.
All these factors weigh on Nina in a remarkably mind bending way thanks to the brilliantly complex performance by Natalie Portman. She plays one part yes, but here she embodies two women. Portman is at once so frail and lost in herself, but she radically changes into a truly deranged, yet eerily powerful sexual figure. Portman did much of the dancing herself, and as much as Nina is, she was truly put through hell. It’s a miraculously brave performance.
I responded to Randy “The Ram’s” pain in “The Wrestler” very strongly, and that sensation was equally strong for Nina Sayers’ pain. But no one would dare compare the feelings we have towards the characters in “Black Swan” to Aronofsky’s previous film, and yet like that one, this is still one of the best movies of the year.