Darren Aronofsky has made a career of choosing interesting, non-traditional material and illuminating the unexpected aspects of his subject matter. Case(s) in point: The Wrestler (a down-trodden wrestler), Pi (mathematicians), Requiem For a Dream (middle-aged drug addiction), and now Black Swan (competitive ballet.)
His knack for taking something completely mundane and elevating it to something tense and dreadful is astonishing. Who would have ever thought that a movie about mathematicians could be exciting, much less sinister? It is no surprise that the man who brought us Pi delivers a dark, provocative, psychological drama, set in the cutthroat (who knew it?) world of competitive ballet.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a beautiful ballerina who dances for a New York City ballet company. Though technically gifted, she has never gotten her big break because the company’s arrogant art director thinks she is too bland to carry a performance.
The film opens with us being privy to some of the cattiness that takes place behind the scenes at the ballet. The troupe’s principal ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), is being forced into retirement at the ripe old age of 37. Nina finds it sad, and defends the dancer, while the other girls titter on about her age and diminished athletic ability. It’s immediately established that the women are highly competitive. There is no sense of camaraderie, everyone is out for themselves.
The perennial classic Swan Lake is set to be the season opener, and Beth’s departure leaves the principal role wide open. Director Thomas (Vince Cassel) pits the girls against one another as they audition for the coveted role of The Swan Queen.
Nina clearly is a high-strung perfectionist completely incapable of cutting loose. “I want to be perfect” is her personal mantra. Off stage her life is equally stressful. She lives with her demanding and overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), who once gave up her dreams of becoming a dancer in order to have Nina. Her need to live vicariously through her daughter is borderline pathological, she invades and oversees every aspect of Nina’s life.
The pressure-cooker environment eventually starts weighing on Nina’s fragile psyche; she is plagued by hallucinations, panic attacks, bizarre dreams, and a crumbling grasp on reality.
A new dancer who joins the company around the time of the auditions further complicates things. Lilly (Mila Kunis) is the antithesis of Nina. Nina is elegant, refined, and controlled. Lilly is free-spirited, dangerous, and sexy. Lilly smokes, drinks, and drugs, and wastes no time banging the male dancers.
Nina is unnerved by Lilly, but also a bit jealous and fascinated. By all accounts they should be enemies, but Lilly befriends Nina and tries to get her to loosen up a bit. Or is she sabotaging Nina? The third act of the movie is dark and unexpected, but ambiguous. Those of you who prefer a tidy ending will be frustrated.
The film is impeccably cast. Portman gives the best performance of her life. She attempted to step out of her comfort zone in Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004), but ultimately her turn as a stripper felt like stunt casting. I never bought it for a moment. It always felt like I was watching Natalie Portman playing a stripper.
Here she simply is Nina. Her emotional performance is devastating. Her panic attacks are so convincing that they almost caused me to have a panic attack just watching her. She’s a sweaty jumble of muscle and nerves, and you never doubt you are watching a dancer. Portman looks the part, too. She is exquisitely beautiful, but lithe and strong.
Mila Kunis is perfect as the bad-girl ballerina, right down to her gravelly voice. I’ve always enjoyed her in movies, but it is nice to see her up her game in a serious role. Barbara Hershey swallows her pride for the performance and allows herself to be completely deglammed with no makeup, pursed lips and a harsh demeanor. She is chilling and unsympathetic as Nina’s mother, and she could give Joan Crawford a run for her money for creepiest mom.
Also of note, Winona Ryder’s brief but welcome time on screen as the devastated Beth. She verbally attacks Nina after Nina gets the Swan Queen role, even though Nina stood up for her early in the movie.
Vincent Cassel brings the right amount of smarm and sleaze to the director’s role. He takes a perverse pleasure in tormenting Nina about her lack of sex appeal, even though he is well aware of her mental fragility.
The film is beautifully shot, and flawlessly directed. Aronofsky wisely chose to use the original Tchaikovsky Swan Lake music, and immerses you in the booming classical score. The music isn’t softly playing in the background, it is front and central, and it becomes an important element of the film. Classical music has been used to great effect throughout film history, and this is a superb example of how much it can complement what we see on screen.
I dare say you will never hear the strains of the familiar Swan Lake score the same way again. Aronofsky times it perfectly so that the tension builds in particular scenes at the exact moment that the music comes to a crescendo.
He also pays signature attention to the details that make the discovery of the world of ballet interesting to a layperson. We witness the rituals of buying and breaking in new toe shoes, the morning stretch routines, and the familiar barre warm-up routines. We also get to see the physical and emotional ravages the profession takes on the dancers; the chiropractor visits, the split toe-nails, and the crackling joints. It’s the same abuse many athletes put their body through, and it is a fascinating aspect of the film.
The notion that these dainty athletes are so physically strong, yet so mentally fragile is fine fodder for a film. Black Swan is scheduled for nationwide release on December 1.
Black Swan is directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel and Winona Ryder.