Natalie Portman certainly proved her acting mettle at a very young age with her breakthrough performance as a hitman’s apprentice in the Luc Besson-directed modern classic, Leon, further cementing her critical regard by performing opposite no less than Al Pacino in the Michael Mann crime epic Heat. All this before she even hit 16. But the trouble with child stars – as exemplified by Macaulay Culkin – is what happens to them when they grow up. Daniel Radcliffe may well be one of the highest paid teens on the planet, but will he ever be anything other than Harry Potter? And Dakota Fanning may have started at an even earlier age – faring extremely well opposite Denzel Washington in the underrated revenge thriller Man on Fire, and memorable in every movie she has participated in – but will her recent, more risqué effort in The Runaways only derail her career, an example of where child stars fall into the trap of playing roles far beyond their age. Portman is clearly a good actress – as evidenced by everything from Garden State to Closer – but she’s generally always been given ‘young woman’ roles, which play upon her innocent, young look; her wide-eyed, unabashed smile; and her tear-filled ability to touch the audience. There may be adult themes to these roles – in Closer she briefly got on stage as a stripper, and touched upon a more demanding, albeit supporting, woman’s role – but she still seemed burdened by her youthful looks and petite stature. In fact, my fear for her has always been that she’d never be given the chance to shine as a modern leading lady in her own right. Then Black Swan came along.
“We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin – the black swan – tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself, and, in death, finds freedom.”
Nina Sayers is a budding young ballet dancer, desperate to take the lead in her prestigious New York City ballet company’s new production of the Swan Lake. Entitled “Black Swan” it is a darker interpretation of the source material, and requires the lead to play both the virginal ‘white swan’ and also her antagonist, the seductive temptress, the ‘black swan’. The passionate company manager, Thomas Leroy, sees in Nina the white swan, but is concerned that she may not be able to capture the both sides of the dual role, and when a seductive new girl joins the troupe, Nina further fears that her position as lead may be jeopardised. With a possessive mother, a failed ballet dancer herself, controlling her every move; and jealousy in the wings as she sees her opponent, Lily, catch the eye of her manager, Nina’s world starts to collapse around her.
Under the title “The Understudy”, the original script for Black Swan centred on a Thespian and their dark obsession with their own understudy. Before picking the script up, Director Darren Aronofsky had already envisioned a love story about a wrestler and a ballerina, but had decided – probably quite wisely – to split the tales, and adapted The Understudy into a tale loosely following Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which he felt would allow him a suitable framework for his themes and concepts about duality. He originally intended Black Swan to be shot first, but production delays left it stewing until after he had finished The Wrestler. Still, the end result in both was very similar in theme and style, and the Director has always regarded Black Swan to be something of a companion-piece to his earlier movie – they are both acute, personal, character-driven observations of somewhat self-destructive, perfectionist performers who very much rely on their own extreme physical conditioning to work their art.
“That was me seducing you – it needs to be the other way around.”
Although anyone familiar with the preceding tour-de-force Oscar-nominated masterpiece will find it relatively easy to draw the obvious parallels between the two tragedies – from the themes identified above, to the similar muted palette and intentionally grainy cinematography that the director adopts in both – Black Swan is actually quite a different animal in many respects. It may play out as a twisted docu-drama of an obsessive ballet dancer, caught up in a tale which is similar in structure to the very play that she is performing in, but, at its core, Black Swan is a dark melodrama, a haunting, somewhat surreal psychological horror which will both baffle you with its seamless integration of illusions and reality, and also sweep you up with its mesmerising intensity.
And yes, Natalie Portman is indeed all-woman now, a woman who well deserved – in my opinion – to win the Oscar for her performance here. Early on in the film, when you see her character cheerily talking to her mother on the phone, grinning through tears-of-joy-filled-eyes, you think to yourself “oh, it’s just Natalie Portman being typical, loveable, cutesy-girl Natalie Portman again”, but these introductory scenes are merely designed to establish her character as being innocent, guileless and child-like, mainly as a result of the cocoon that her possessive mother has enclosed her in for far too long. After a while you see the cracks in the perfect visage, the flaws and imperfections appears – she’s acutely convincing in her own self-destruction: inexplicable marks appearing on her body; her character becoming so obsessed with her own perfection that she imagines peeling a shard of her own skin off just to remove a tiny blemish. You can see the panic spreading through her, the tension simmering beneath the surface as she becomes increasingly concerned about losing the part, about failing to be ‘perfect’; and, pretty-soon, you find yourself totally absorbed by the character, having long-since forgotten it was being played by none other than the reliably cute, frequently girly Natalie Portman.
“The only person standing in your way is you. It's time to let go. Lose yourself.”
Accompanying her for this magical mystery tour of despair and self-destruction Aronofsky has compiled a top supporting cast, with the superb French actor Vincent Cassel (Le Pacte des Loupes, Mesrine) perfectly chosen for the role of the controlling company manager, who, in directing the dance routines, boils everything down to one simple element – sexuality. And, in this respect, you can totally see why his dance manager is drawn to the new girl – played by Mila Kunis – who may not have the same skills as Natalie Portman’s Nina, but is far more visibly passionate in her work. Kunis, who you may remember from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or from starring opposite Denzel Washington in the post-apocalyptic Book of Eli, has come a long way since her That 70s Show days, now a lithe, streamlined form of her previous self; a perfect ‘black swan’ counterpart to Portman’s protagonist. Also integral to the central character are the roles of Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, both playing passed-over dancers, who have been since superseded by Nina. Hershey’s possessive, controlling mother – who clearly wants the best for her ‘little girl’ but does not understand that her manipulative hand is destroying her – is all face-lifts and botox, an ageing performer who has long lost her ability to physically captivate, and so lives her life vicariously through her daughter. Ryder has a relatively small but nonetheless important glorified cameo as the previous lead dancer, her own self-destructive nature echoing the path that Nina has herself set out on.
And, as in The Wrestler, where Mickey Rourke was perfectly chosen for the lead role of a once-great, but now broken performer, Portman simply carries this whole movie. It’s her baby; she takes centre-stage and captivates throughout – her dedication to the role apparent both in the demanding dance routines (many of which she performed herself, after a year of hard training) and in the daring sexual scenes, which fringe on being of the explicit-but-not-erotic variety. Aronofsky utilises them as just another tool to show the desperation that her character has to change her innocence, corrupt and even destroy herself, just to achieve ‘perfection’ in her performance – echoing in Portman’s Nina Sayers the things that performers (and actresses) often have to do to find ‘success’.
Bringing aboard frequent collaborator Clint Mansell – who has scored the last 5 of Aronofsky’s productions – to morph Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into a twisted, distorted variation (often played backwards to disarming effect), and capturing the movie with the same hand-held, shot-from-behind-the-character approach so cleverly utilised to ‘document’ the lead character’s journey in The Wrestler, the acclaimed Director has once again created a visually opulent, haunting melodrama, as relentlessly oppressive as it is utterly captivating. And taken as a whole, he has crafted a totally unique experience – it is truly unlike anything you would have seen before – but, that said, if you look closely you can see what might have influenced him.
Aside from Swan Lake itself – which is represented in everything from the colours that the leads wear to the surname of the production manager – and also an unusual 1948 production entitled The Red Shoes (which, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale story, looks at the destructive art, and has a similarly possessive dance manager and similarly torn central performer, as well as plenty of surreal, fantastical symbolisation) the movie is also reminiscent of the works of the likes of David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch) and of Roman Polanski’s apartment trilogy (most notably his own study in self-destruction, Repulsion). Aronofsky also adopts themes from Shakespeare’s own Macbeth (note the symbolic washing of the blood from the hands) and the acclaimed mystery anime Perfect Blue (which also charts the duality within its lead character’s personality) – a movie which he himself bought the rights to several years before he made Requiem for a Dream. And this may well be The Wrestler’s younger – though equally troubled – little sister, but it is populated by the same fractured characters and despair-stricken themes as Requiem, and is often just as disturbing to watch.
“Everything she does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that's what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.”
For those red-blooded males out there who shiver at the word ‘ballet’ – forget that aspect of the movie, it is no more than an unusual setting in which to play out the psychodrama. In fact, this film is not only just as accessible to men as it is to women, it is also just as inaccessible to both.
Black Swan may not suit everybody’s tastes; nor appeal to the sensibilities of those easily offended – or easily confused – but if you ride with it, it will certainly leave you with something to both think about and also talk about afterwards. In equal parts haunting and exhilarating, watch it for the surreal, overwhelmingly over-the-top ballet-within-a-ballet narrative; the intense, self-destructive competition and quest for perfection amidst these performers; and the breathtaking, claustrophobic package that Aronofsky has put together to stimulate your senses; but – perhaps most importantly – watch it to see Natalie Portman finally come into her own. Highly recommended.
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