"Black Swan", the new film from director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler". "Requiem for a Dream", "Pi") tells the story of a young ballerina desperate to play the lead in the company's new production of "Swan Lake". The film provides the opportunity for Natalie Portman to turn in a tour-de-force performance, easily the best in her career/
When actors take on new roles, my romantic notions of the film industry try to take over and I like to think they do so for "the challenge". They want to try something new, to challenge themselves to create a completely different character. Hopefully, they will lose themselves in the role and come close to making something they are proud of, something the public will remember for the ages. Obviously, this rarely happens, but it is an ideal a lot of actors strive for. But the very concept of "Movie Star" works against the possibility. As an actor's star rises, they become more and more recognizable, making it more difficult for them to lose themselves in a particular role. Fame steps in and it becomes all about opening your film at #1 to justify your next $20 million paycheck. It becomes all about becoming the next Will Smith or Bruce Willis. Then it all becomes about maintaining that status with one blockbuster after another.
It is, at first, refreshing to watch "Black Swan" and watch Natalie Portman lose herself as she portrays Nina Sayers, the young ballerina. As you watch Nina deal with all of the pressure in her life, you frequently forget you are watching the actress, she goes through so many difficult emotions it is almost remarkable we believe in her portrayal of this character. The role could easily shift into "over the top" mode, but Portman shows a fine restraint.
Then, as we begin to get lost in the role with her, and we begin to share her feelings and experience what she is going through, we begin to feel unsettled. We feel her pain, her desperation, her paranoia and we realize the film is pushing us into this unsettling world, making us a bigger part of Nina's life.
"Black Swan" is about Sayer's obsessions. She has worked all of her life as a ballerina and desperately wants to play the lead. She is the most dedicated dancer, as her mother (Barbara Hershey) comments, and can perform all of the moves perfectly, as Tomas (Vincent Cassel), the company's director notes frequently, but he wants a lead who can also portray the passion necessary for the role. He wants someone who can play both the White Swan and her evil twin, the Black Swan. And to get the performance he wants, he is willing to go employ some unorthodox methods. Can he control her? Can he coax the right performance from her? Can he seduce her? Can he awaken her passion, sensuality and sexuality?
As the pressure on Nina increases, her fears and paranoia grow. A new girl arrives at the company just before Nina wins the coveted role. But Nina notices Lily right away; shortly after she arrives, Nina and Tomas watch Lily practice and she exhibits exactly the type of uninhibited moves the director wants. From that moment, Lily appears to be both supportive and a back-stabber, her attitude and manner seem to change every moment.
Nina still lives with her mom (Hershey) who is extremely supportive and protective, maybe too supportive and protective. She dotes on her daughter because she has the chance she never had as a ballerina. Nina lives in her childhood bedroom and it looks like it could be a time capsule, twin bed, flowery sheets, and stuffed animals. All of this points to a young woman who has a lack of maturity and this will help lead to her paranoia.
And Nina also becomes a little unhinged when she witnesses the treatment of Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the previous star of the company. It is very clear Beth doesn't want to relinquish the starring role in any production, but she doesn't have any say in the matter. Nina recognizes that she is ascending because Beth is on the way out, but she still idolizes the older ballerina, to a certain extent. Beth's life enters a downward spiral and Nina watches everything with great interest. At first, she is fascinated by Beth's actions and then she quickly becomes alarmed.
Darren Aronofsky is a unique director. He clearly works on projects that interest him and he creates unusual, intense films, films that may not be everyone's cup of tea or reach a large audience. Good for him. If every director only worked on projects that inspire them, films would be a lot better. If people are working on projects that impassion them, they are bound to make a better film.
"Black Swan" is not a film that everyone will want to see. The film's backdrop of a ballet company is sure to turn away many potential fans. But Aronofsky uses this as the perfect backdrop for his portrait of obsession and claustrophobia. As we get to know Nina, see her watch everyone else, it becomes pretty clear that she is pretty nervous. She wants and needs to become the star, but once she does, she becomes afraid of losing this role to the new girl in the company. Every time she turns around, she senses Lily is watching her. Is she laughing at her? Does she want the lead in the production? Nina decides Lily is someone she should watch, to be aware of her, but also because she is someone who intrigues the young ballerina.
Because the company is small, most of the practice space and backstage area is also small. The bulk of the property is for the theater. So the ballerina's spend a lot of time in very little space, practicing their moves, learning the roles. As Nina becomes more obsessed and consumed, the walls seem to close in on her. It doesn't help that she lives in a small apartment with her mother, sometimes confining herself to her own small room. And because they live in New York, everything seems pushed in. To further emphasize the point, the camera always seems close to people and even then, a lot of people seem to be fluttering around the edges.
As Nina becomes more unhinged, Lily suggests she let herself go, experience a little sexual awakening. Nina seems to latch on this as a way of helping her become the Black Swan, to help her become less inhibited. Tomas seems to tell her as much. So as she becomes obsessive about the role, about the performance, she also starts to unleash this part of her personality, underdeveloped as it is, and this only adds to the confusion and stress her character experiences.
I really liked "Black Swan". The director and lead were able to do something few can, fully immerse the viewer in the life of a character. It has some problems, most notably a couple of scenes in which Winona Ryder chews the scenery, but they aren't enough to detract from the overall experience.