The Wrestler (2008) portrayed an man who suffered for his art; as a professional wrestler he had to torture his body in order to give the audience what it craved. Director Darren Aronofsky considers Black Swan to be a companion piece. The film shares similar themes with The Wrestler, but its main focus doesn’t lie on the painful physical process behind a ballet performance, but the mental illness that’s about to break the protagonist. The audience might have felt more comfortable merely observing this condition, but Aronofsky forces us to take part in it. It’s not a horror movie, but it will certainly make your skin crawl.
At the New York City Ballet Company, the brilliant director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is preparing a new take on Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. He needs a dancer capable of portraying both the innocent White Swan and the evil Black Swan. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) desperately wants the part, but Leroy is far from convinced; he knows that the timid Nina can do White Swan but he has yet to see her dark side. What he doesn’t know is that Nina has certain issues that few others know about. She shares an apartment with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) who has devoted her entire life to her daughter and potential success in ballet. Nina has had problems in the past, scratching parts of her body until it bleeds. As she competes for the “Swan Lake” part, she seems to be hurting herself again and also starting to see strange things. Eventually, Nina lands the part of the Swan twins, which thrills her… but the nightmarish visions only intensify.
There’s a lot going on in this film and it’s hard not to be fascinated. Aronofsky wanted to do a story about understudies, what it feels like to be shadowed by a double. All About Eve (1950) comes to mind and that part of the film is represented by the confident and blunt Lily (Mila Kunis) who becomes Nina’s understudy and a person Nina considers a threat as well as an object of sexual desire. Startlingly, she sees herself in others at times and those scenes are reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s eerie The Tenant (1976). The theme of self-mutilation and the unlimited possibility of the human body as a tool is pure Cronenberg, of course. Tortured feet, sharp scissors cutting fingers and skin that gets ripped off one’s body… it all serves as an entrée to the real feast, the final half-hour where Nina merges entirely with the physical and mental aspects of her “Swan Lake” character. Often we are not entirely sure of what’s real and Aronofsky likes to keep it that way; we should be on edge, just like Nina. The director and his collaborators cleverly turn the entire film into a frenzied, very dark, operatic show that takes characteristics of ballet (such as the physical hard work and the always present mirrors) and make them part of what is sick in Nina’s life. Most films about ballet celebrate the beauty of the art; this one makes it look like something Satan invented. Portman invested a lot into her character; she wanted to do something decidedly adult and she carries the film through some of its sillier moments. She’s very ably assisted by Hershey as the mother who enables Nina’s illness and Kunis as the sexy dancer who in Nina’s mind turns into a lesbian schemer.
Some critics thought the film is too overblown. Also, I couldn’t help laughing a little at Cassel’s stereotypical character, an insulting Frenchman who uses sex to manipulate the women who work for him. Still, this is a highly intelligent, raw and very visual experience that leaves one breathless.
Black Swan 2010-U.S. 108 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, John McLaughlin. Cinematography: Matthew Libatique. Editing: Andrew Weisblum. Cast: Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied.
Trivia: Meryl Streep was allegedly considered for the part of Nina’s mother.
Oscar: Best Actress (Portman). BAFTA: Best Actress (Portman). Golden Globe: Best Actress (Portman).
Last word: “[Portman and I] talked a bit about it and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of the time, when you do a movie and you say, ‘Hey, I want to make a movie about your world,’ all the doors open up, and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn’t at all interested in us hanging out, so it took a long time to get the information to put it together. Over the years, Natalie would say, ‘I’m getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.’ I was like, ‘Natalie, you look great. It’ll be fine.’ And then, about a year out from filming, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That’s how it started.” (Aronofsky, Collider)