This review of Black Swan is a little late in arriving, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to write one at all. Being a great admirer of Darren Aronofsky’s previous work, my immense disappointment with the film did not encourage me. But being in what seems the extreme minority of those who found the film lacking Aronofsky’s previous genius, I feel somewhat compelled (not only by myself) to justify my opinion.
Spoilers to follow.
The premise is fairly straightforward. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in the chorus of a New York ballet company with dreams of being the prima ballerina. She finally gets her chance when the artistic director Thomas (played by a somewhat understated yet still slightly evil Vincent Cassel) chooses her to play the lead in Swan Lake. Except that Nina is far more the white swan: virgin and demure. To play the evil twin black swan, she must engage with her darker side. Enter Mila Kunis as Lily, a new ballerina who is very in touch with her dark side. Nina, whose history of self-harm and psychosis is made apparent early in the film, begins to plummet back into a strange madness yet again as she struggles to play her part.
The film seems to venture into the fantastical territory that appeared in Aronofsky’s earlier films Pi and The Fountain. The film mixes the fantastic nature of these films with the realism of The Wrestler. The difference with Black Swan might be that he did not write the screenplay as he did for his other fantastic films. As stated before, it is made fairly obvious early in the film that Nina’s hallucinations are due to mental illness, thus the mystery of their source, which could have potentially made the film less predictable, is solved. The narrative thus becomes a question of how soon Nina will either come to her senses or lose herself entirely in her role. This brings it close to The Wrestler as an examination of the human mind and its attachment to the spotlight.
Like Randy in The Wrestler, Nina’s job involves torturing and contorting her body in ways it was arguably not meant to perform. The world of ballet is fascinating for this: ballet dancers constantly suffer from injuries, beat their body into submission, and all for a career that will likely not last for them beyond the age of 30, if they’re lucky. However, unlike Randy, it’s hard to feel sorry for ballet dancers, considering their beauty and the more prestigious limelight of their world (as oppose to that of professional wrestling.) Barbara Hershey, as Nina’s mother, is not given enough to do; she is the perfect counterpart as the failed dancer, trying to relive her former dreamt-of glory through her daughter. Kunis is a delight as Lily, a girl who knows this life will not last long so she will enjoy it while she can, and be, as Thomas says, not perfect but effortless.
I seem to have made a number of people angry by my description of Portman as boring. This is, for me, not limited to her performance in this film. I have never been a fan. She’s not a bad actor, but she’s never, to be colloquial, “done it for me.” Granted, physically she is the perfect choice for the role, and when the film began I had no trouble accepting her as Nina. But the film calls for far more interesting shades of character than she is able to realize. That is, until the last twenty minutes of the film. As soon as she stabs Lily and the black swan takes over, she flies, literally and metaphorically. I can imagine how delicious this part of the film must have been to perform, and Portman proves that, when given the right moment, she can chew scenery with the best of them. I just wish I had seen this power throughout the film.
Visually, the film is stunning. Aronofsky’s trademark combination of behind-the-head shots, close-ups, and mixture of handheld and stationary camera work well in the ballet environment. In a film about performance, placing a camera behind the performer, on the one, hand, lets us understand the world from their perspective, and also see how others view them. Nina is seen as the white swan, but her back (unseen under shrugs) is where the black swan must emerge, that what must come from her spine that holds her body upright. The two must exist together, and Aronofsky explores this metaphor beautifully in cinematography.
Unfortunately, for me, the predictability of the narrative and the lackluster performance of Portman brought this film down. Predictability is not necessarily a detriment to a film; frequently I know what is going to happen and am still mesmerized. But Black Swan became about the brilliant destination, rather than the dull journey.