Movie review – Black Swan
Dir. Darren Aronofsky
Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, it should be said, is not subtle. Nor is its debt to older movies dealing with similar subject matter – ballet and a traumatized female psyche – particularly small. But what it lacks in subtlety and a unique setting it makes up for in atmosphere and spectacle, one that deals as well with really difficult questions about the artist’s relationship to her audience as it does with making the film’s audience distinctly uncomfortable.
Natalie Portman, in what’s being rightfully hailed as one of the best performances of the year, plays Nina Sayers, a longtime ballerina at a prestigious but not particularly profitable ballet company in New York. During the first rehearsal we see, the company’s director, a charming yet predatory cad portrayed expertly by Vincent Cassel, announces that the season will open with a “visceral” version of Swan Lake. Nina wants the role; the director is not convinced, however, that the timid, fragile Nina has it in her to dance both the virginal and pure White Swan and her seductive, intense counterpart, the Black Swan. But she convinces him that she can dance both parts, and she sets out to do so.
Slowly, Nina begins to become unhinged; the apartment she shares with her mother grows claustrophobic, and she develops a relationship with a fellow ballerina that oscillates wildly between sexual attraction and fearful rivalry. And her director begins to seduce her. And she begins to see her own face everywhere. And the rash on her back looks awfully like feathers trying to break through skin. But Nina keeps dancing, keeps trying to improve; after all, as she says early on, she wants to be “perfect.”
And this is where Aronofsky’s film gets clever. Nina’s obsession with the role eventually threatens to override her personality, but not in the way you might expect. Sure, the plot of the film seems to be about her attempts to embody the Black Swan’s seductive figure, but the crisis of identify isn’t between Nina and the Black Swan, it’s between Nina the person and Nina the dancer, Nina the private figure and Nina the object of an audience’s attention. Which makes its theme – the lengths to which a performer will go in order to please an audience – all the more poignant, and its occasional shocking violence all the more horrifying.