Under Pressure ... Portman ‘on her toes’ in Thriller
What can I say about “Black Swan” that won’t already be said?
The new psychological thriller opened Dec. 3 in limited release across the country amid the controversy about its provocative scenes and Oscar worthy performances.
Unfortunately, that’s the problem. The film, by director Darren Aronofsky, has been reduced to its parts instead of the totality of its vision. And that’s hurting the movie.
Yes, Natalie Portman is incredible in the role of longtime ballerina Nina Sayers. The Oscar talk is deserved. Yet, it is her performance that drives the film; it has to! So, as goes Portman, so goes “Black Swan.” If one doesn’t show what is happening in the prima ballerina’s mind, then you don’t have ‘psychological’ or ‘thriller.’
In this new movie, one truism Aronofsky features is the concept of “art without passion is just movement” for a dancer. One has to get into the mind to access ‘passion’ for anything. Sure, anyone can memorize the moves of a ballet performance for instance, but only the truly gifted can literally lose themselves in the performance of such moves. That type of performance transcends all else the audience sees and understands; it even transcends the world around the performer if there is no audience. It is magical…
Then, Aronofsky adds the concept of ‘pressure’ on a performer. For the professional performer (of any kind), the goal is always to be better and to be billed the top artist. In this case, the Swan Queen role from the ballet “Swan Lake.” It is the dancer that all are fixated on during the performance of the ballet. All the other dancers are just background props. (Yes, that’s not fair but it’s the reality of how the play was written.)
In the New York City ballet world, Nina Sayers is a longtime member of the troupe which will end its season on a retiring note and start its new season with a spectacular new version of “Swan Lake.” The interpersonal relationships between ballet dancers are handled well by Aronofsky. Nina’s state of mind is explained in her private and professional life as the troupe gears up to say goodbye to one of its own while trying to accept the new and unexpected challenges of the upcoming season opener: Swan Lake, the epitome of the ballet art.
Aronofsky quickly gets into the rehearsals and tryouts for the lead role. Nina is understandably excited and nervous as she goes through the process with troupe director Thomas Leroy, played by brilliantly by Vincent Cassel. Aronofsky spends time showing the pressure of the lead role for the ballerina who has waited so long to get to that point.
He adds the element of her personal life in the form of the mother ballerina, portrayed wonderfully by Barbara Hershey. Erica Sayers, the mother, knows the trials of an emerging ballet star and wants to balance it with a nurturing environment—one that goes to the extreme right down to the pink shams of the poster canopy bed in the girl’s stuffed animal filled room.
Between Leroy’s demands as director and the surreal home life Nina endures, it is an acceptable journey to discover what might go on in the young ballerina’s mind. This is the heart of ‘Black Swan.’
Leroy’s twisted version of “Swan Lake” has the same ballerina play both the White Swan and the Black Swan, an unusual take on the classic ballet at best. One that forces Nina to delve into her dark side to ‘truly’ be the Black Swan, as Leroy tells her. For the girl who has spent her entire dancing career being ‘perfect’ technically, this is like asking DAY to be NIGHT. So, the conflict begins…Nina wants to do the part right, but does she have the dark passions to fulfill the vision? And more importantly, what will it take to get there?
Aronofsky then adds the master stroke--the introduction of a rival ballerina to the troupe; one that Leroy can use to stoke the ‘fire’ in Nina’s mind. The paranoia cannot be far behind…which fuels the plunge into the lead ballerina’s deep dark persona.
Newcomer Mila Kunis is superb as Lilly, the newest troupe member. She is the ‘Black Swan’ personified without trying. She is the dark side of “Swan Lake” and could understandably be cast in the lead role…therefore, more pressure for Nina to give the performance of a lifetime…but at what cost?
Aronofsky’s use of broad symbolism matches with Nina’s descent and his use of mirrors give the viewer a sense of fragmentation, which is surely what Nina is going through. The moviegoer doesn’t know what is real or what is in Nina’s mind. By keeping a pace such as this, Aronofsky builds the suspense to the end for the climactic scene, when art imitates life within the movie. Great performances within great storytelling!
In watching Portman and Kunis perform the ballet moves, it is even more amazing that each actress is doing all her own moves. Each spent countless hours in preparation for the technical aspects of this ballet movie; and both spent hours with a personal trainer to be the correct ‘size’ for ballerinas in that situation. Talk about getting into one’s character! No wonder there is Oscar talk for this great film.
Yes, the spectacular controversial scenes are there, but “Black Swan” is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is a realistic look at the world of high stakes ballet and art form in general; and what an artist will endure to ‘live’ for his or her art.
“Black Swan” is rated R and runs 108 minutes; currently showing at the Magnolia Theater and Northpark AMC 15 in Dallas; and the Angelika Theater and the Cinemark Legacy in Plano.
Warning: Director Afronsky's vision of the ballerina Nina's 'decent into madness' includes sexually explicit material and homosexual encounters. "Black Swan" is definitely for adults and should be considered as such. Critical acclaim for the film is coming from several outlets and awards programs, but the nature of the story is not for children or adolescents.