I have been ruminating on the movie Black Swan since seeing it last Sunday, with my friend Emma who had already seen it the previous week. Aside from all the hype surrounding this Natalie Portman film on Twitter and Facebook, the fact that Emma was willing to go again just a week later to see it in theaters convinced me to sit through a movie entirely about the New York City ballet company, not exactly my forté.
But my low expectations for entertainment were truly blown away by Black Swan, as I found myself completely drawn into Portman’s stellar turn as Nina Sayers, a talented but timid member of the esteemed New York ballet company whose devotion is rewarded in the opening scenes by landing the coveted role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Vincent Cassel plays the brilliant but chauvinistic company director Thomas Leroy, who only rewards Nina with the part after he gets to steal a kiss and test her sexual boundaries in the privacy of his all black and white (absolutely no color) office.
Once the main ballerina storyline has been established, the movie’s true identity as a psychosexual thriller becomes apparent as we realize the line between Nina’s frightening dream sequences and real life is ambiguous at best. She lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who has channelled her failed shot at ballet stardom into a creepy obsession with her daughter’s career that borders on imprisonment.
Anyone who has seen Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain knows that Aronofsky is not one for intimation in his visual approach. In Black Swan he stays true to form, repeatedly zooming into the nitty gritty details of ballerina life: busted toes, filthy silk shoes, and astounding skinniness brought on by intense training regimens and a little bulimia too. The scenes where Nina’s mother is furiously clipping her daughter’s fingernails recalled for me the rapid-fire drug use scenes from Requiem.
The ballet storyline follows a very typical arc, centered on company rehearsals and gradually building to the climax of opening night. Along the way we witness the unraveling of Nina’s sanity as the evil black swan begins to take over, manifest in her curious connection with the wild west coast ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) and frighteningly so in the black feathers that start to peak through her shoulder blades as the story progresses. Portman portrays her sheltered and sexually numbed ballerina so entirely well that even at the most extreme and briefly gruesome moments, you never catch her acting.
Once the film reaches the final breathtaking scene of Swan Lake’s opening night, Nina has been transformed from the spineless second ran into the main attraction, the lustrous black swan. It’s hard to adequately capture the excitement and beauty of this climax, all I can say is that you should run, not walk, to the nearest theater this holiday season and check out the performance of Portman’s career.
Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Runtime: 108 minutes.