I like a good mind f*ck every now and then. You know what I mean. Something that leaves you asking, what just happened? Black Swan was a bewitching film, both stunning and unsettling in its narrative. Natalie Portman (Brothers) was a revelation. At times I wanted to console her character Nina Sayers; other times I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. I know that “Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is already taken, but it aptly describes Black Swan.
Portman as the aforementioned Nina is an emotionally frigid, socially sheltered perfectionist and ballerina. Yeah. She’s got issues. Despite her obvious emotional frailties, I found Nina oddly endearing. She was sympathetic, even when her actions belied something more sinister. Let me back up for a second. The movie begins from the inner sanctum of the ballet. Nina has been named as a replacement for an aging ballerina as lead dancer, or Swan Queen, in an adaptation of Swan Lake. Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is the man whose job is to extract the most from his dancers, both physically and emotionally. It is the latter aspect that eludes Nina. She has mastered the technique but is unable to tap into an inner sense of abandon. Her emotional repression is furthered by a domineering mother, played by Barbara Hershey. Nina and her mother, a former ballerina herself, have a bizarre relationship. She smothers Nina with inappropriate coddling and displays of affection. Because of this stifling behavior, Nina hasn’t developed sexually or socially, and this shortcoming is reflected in her dancing. She is unable to tap into a more visceral, sensual place because she lacks those experiences. Thomas tries to get more out of her, but he is equal parts predator and teacher. He encourages Nina to explore a darker side. She has mastered the technique of the White Swan, who is pure and virginal, which mirrors her own character. But the Swan Queen must be able to embody elements of the Black Swan as well.
The titular Black Swan is represented by Mila Kunis (The Book of Eli), as Lily. Nina’s joy at being named Swan Queen is short-lived, when Lily shows up. As a ballerina, Lily is Nina’s opposite. She is dark and sensual, completely free when she dances. This is what Thomas wants to see from her. Desperate to please him and live up to her mother’s expectations, Nina’s fragile psyche begins to weaken. She envies Lily, yet is intrigued by her. Thomas encourages Nina to get in touch with her inner evil twin. Specifically, he instructs her to touch herself when she goes home. It is here that I must give it to Ms. Portman. Because she did in fact follow his instruction, and it was an amazing scene. That sounds perverted, but let me explain. (Obviously) masturbating is an intensely personal act. It was an uncomfortable scene for me to watch, because I felt like a voyeur. That is a testament to Portman, because if it was hard for me to watch, imagine how hard it was to perform.
I don’t want to reveal too much more about the movie; but it was a sexy, scary experience that left me confounded. In a good way. Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) crafted a beautifully disturbing work of art that excited you one minute and scared the hell out of you the next. I enjoyed the exposition of the ballet world as a competitive, draining atmosphere that can cause a fragile ego to disintegrate. Nina is both infatuated with Lily and threatened by her. Couple this with her tenuous grip on reality, and the possibilities are mind-bending, as Aronofsky deftly shows us.
As for Natalie Portman, she’s one hell of an actress. She trained for this role for over a year, preparing as a real ballerina would. She performed some very difficult sexual scenes, including one with Mila Kunis. So much of the movie was focused on her, from the harsh, up close camera angles to the script that called for her to lay herself emotionally bare and vulnerable. I applaud every aspect of her performance. It was deeply moving and intricate in its psychological detail. The movie had a dark and unsettling feeling that will linger with you for a bit. If you don’t mind a little head rush, this is one to see.