Film Review #240: Black Swan
Director: Daron Aronofsky
Cast: Nathalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell
Somewhere in the vaults of my family’s old home movies, there’s a reel – yes, that long ago – of the ballet recital that climaxed the after-school classes my mother and grandmother made me go to for a single year. I remember the recital, with myself togged up as one of the white swans – white fluff, white satin, silver trim – running in and out of the circles of other girls. I looked as miserable as I surely was. After that, they let me stop.
Quite a few of the audience at Manlius Art Cinema’s opening night screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan looked like they were young dancers themselves. They had the same slenderness and carriage that Natalie Portman (as Nina Sayers) and Mila Kunis (as her rival, Lilly), even though both already had years of formal dance training, spent months of full-time training and dieting to achieve before shooting began. Two of them sat just behind me and throughout the film one or the other would periodically gasp or exclaim at the proceedings on-screen. As we left after the credits, we shared that universally understood combination of sound and gesture – part eye-roll, part shrug and part dramatic exhalation – that made adding the words “I’m exhausted!” unnecessary. Out in the lobby, somebody did say that.
Absorbing, by turn hallucinatory, appalling, gorgeous and deeply sad, and billed somewhat bizarrely as a “dance thriller” in the shorthand of ad-speak, Black Swan contains few lulls and several very fine performances. Besides the principal leads, Vincent Cassell is the controlling, Balanchine-like dance master, Barbara Hershey is Nina’s creepy mother and, somewhere beneath raccoon eyes and a fright wig, an unrecognizable Winona Ryder– who is that? I kept wondering every time this woman appeared – is the waning prima ballerina abruptly and publicly “retired” to make room for younger Nina Sayers to dance the double lead in Swan Lake, who goes round the bend.
Well, she is not the only one. Set in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center – as is New York City Ballet in real life – Black Swan concerns the long-held dream of company dancer Nina Sayers to dance the lead in Swan Lake, a double role of the good Swan Queen and her rival/double/shadow self, the Black Swan. The daughter of a former dancer whose unplanned pregnancy abruptly ended her career, Nina lives with her mother in a maze-like apartment on the upper West Side. Her mother ostensibly lives only for Nina’s success, but of course – we are dealing with archetypes here – jealously and cruelly undermines her at every turn. When Thomas casts Nina as the lead, her anxiety sky-rockets even as she struggles to emerge as her own person, upsetting the delicate see-saw between mother and daughter. In a single scene shows us how vulnerable Nina really is – and signals the rising arc in Portman’s astonishing performance – she races to the privacy of a dressing room to telephone her mother and announce, in the tones a child might to her Mommy, that she got the part.
Lily’s arrival in the company complicates matters further. Between Lily’s own ambitions, Nina’s insecurity and utter lack of experience in discerning what a real adult friendship might look like, and Thomas’ manipulations of both, very quickly it’s hard to tell what really happens and what Nina imagines. As physically demanding as top-flight professional dancing may actually be, Black Swan extends this considerably here, adding physical abuse and humiliation from Nina’s mother, hallucinated self-mutilation, sexual violation real and otherwise, and murderous attacks with shattered pieces of mirror on the triumphant opening night.
On Monday, Black Swan was cited for “Worst Female Images” in a film released theatrically in 2010 by the national Women Film Critics Circle during WFCC’s year-end awards announcements – beating out Burlesque, The Killer Inside Me, and The Social Network. With the sole exception of the unnamed older woman, quiet, focused, dignified, clearly accomplished, who runs the warm-ups and classes for the company dancers during rehearsals – in a film that contains some cinematically brilliant sequences, the comparatively understated moment in which the camera simply watches her back and shoulder muscles for a moment as she shows a dancer a sequence of moves is one of the best – there’s no female character here that we’d want any of our daughters or nieces or godchildren or sisters to take as a role model. And from opening night’s audience, I’d say they pretty much get that.
But Aronofsky wasn’t making a movie about role models. Instead of agit-prop, as he’s said extensively and about which there’s no great mystery, he’s exploring ideas of identity and doubles, how we contain our opposites, how performers use their bodies as their medium and the dangerous nature of images (Plato warned us, after all, to ban the artists), a variation and extension of previous films such as last year’s The Wrestler. For those harrowing, edgy achievements, see this dazzling film.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the December 23, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly in Syracuse and at www.theeaglecny.com. “Black Swan” continues at Manlius Art Cinema and has also opened at Carousel Mall.