Nina Sayres is a talented young ballet dancer, and as our film starts has this dream that she’ll be playing the part of the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake. Her life is consumed with dance which is true for all dancers, but with added pressure by living with her obsessive mother, Erica, a former ballerina. She’s just as driven by the director of the company she works with, Thomas Leroy. Nina is his first choice to play the White Swan in his production, but he wants the same dancer to be able to perform as the Black Swan, and there Nina lacks right drive. Her obsession grows as a new dancer joins the company, Lily, who outwardly seems to represent all that the Black Swan should embody. An uncomfortable relationship forms between the two, which helps to put Nina more in touch with her darker side, but goes into a carelessness which threatens to destroy her life.
Black Swan is the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, who has certainly kept me impressed ever since his very first movie, Pi and my most favorite of all of his movies, Requiem For A Dream. Black Swan is cut from a similar cloth as that of Aronofsky’s last movie, The Wrestler both of which show their own brands of performance creativity while trying to succeed in their chosen entertainment forms. The result of both, are pretty dark character studies, with Aronofsky showing the darker sides of both professions that most of us never see.
Nina’s on a lot more shakier psychological ground Mickey Rourke’s character was from The Wrestler. Aronofsky illustrates this by constantly keeping his camera on her in close-up odd angles that suggest an uncomfortable intimacy, so almost right from the start, you get the feeling that something is just a little off with her.
It’s a beautiful production and it does what I think the best movies should do, which is show us a world that we just don’t have any idea about. I know that ballet is certainly a graceful art form, but I don’t know the mechanics or the pain that the dancers go through, and on this Aronofsky certainly succeeds at showing that side of the craft.
This is billed as a psychological thriller, though I think dark character study is a little more appropriate. Aronofsky’s vision is certainly fresh, but I get the feeling of a few other movies in here as well- I certainly see some similarities to such things as DePalma’s Carrie to various Dario Argento movies to even something like Verhoeven’s Showgirls. At the same time, Aronofsky is very much telling the story of Swan Lake in his own visceral way. This is very much an “art house” movie, and as such it won’t be for all tastes, and at least from what I could tell, it wasn’t to everyone’s satisfaction at the theatre that I saw it at.
Ever since I first saw her in Luc Besson’s Leon (or it’s American title, The Professional) I thought Natalie Portman was going to be a huge star, and she certainly has become that. Aronofsky pushes her in ways she hasn’t been pushed in past performances and gets something truly harrowing out of her, though it doesn’t quite totally connect with me say the same way that James Franco did in 127 Hours (another recent example of a film where one character is dominant over all others). Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a terrific performance, very much worthy of all the accolades it’s receiving, but the character just isn’t quite as full. Of course some of this can be chalked up to her single minded obsessiveness as well with all of the other characters being there to personify some other aspects.
Portman’s backed up with a fine array of talent, best of which being in both Vincent Cassel as Leroy and Mila Kunis as Lily. Whenever I see Cassel in anything, I think the bar gets raised a bit, and while he is support here, he’s still compelling to watch. Kunis is playing the darker, freer side that Nina would like to get to and she certainly excels at that, and also serves for some brief comic relief to some scenes. Barbara Hershey plays Erica, Nina’s mother and it very much reminds me in it’s own way of Piper Laurie in Carrie with her obsessive tone. Winona Ryder fills out the main cast as an aging star who’s being put out to pasture, and if there is any performance that does lack here, it’s probably hers, though I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely her fault. We’re told she was great, but we never see that, instead just getting a one-dimensional anger. Now this certainly can be chalked up to this entirely being from Nina’s point of view, but Nina also has respect for her, but we don’t know why other than that we’re told it. It’s a moot point, but I thought worth mentioning, especially in light of the fact that we do see Lily (Kunis) perform.
Still this is very much worth seeing, but I honestly don’t think it’s for everyone. We had a group of 50-ish women in our audience who were just totally turned off once certain sexual and fantasy scenes played out, which just had me thinking that they weren’t really wanting to see something like this and would’ve been more at home with a safer movie with Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock in it. One thing about Darren Aronofsky movies is that they’re never safe, and I certainly applaud that. So be sure you bring your pads and cleats to this and be ready to play when it comes to this film, it’s hardly a passive experience. Very much recommended.