At the heart of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, “Black Swan,” is the question: how far can an artist push themselves for the sake of their art?
“Black Swan” pulls the viewer into one perfectionist ballerina’s twisted, mad world, and holds the viewer there, whether they like it or not.
Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, lives a controlled life: every morning she leaves the small Manhattan apartment she shares with her overbearing mother, and commutes to rehearsal with the ballet company she belongs to. She puts in long hours at the barre, and then returns home quietly every night. The next day it begins again. Nina is a great ballerina, but she has no feeling in her performance. When she lands the role of the Swan Queen in the production of “Swan Lake,” Nina is pressured to dance perfectly and bring emotion to her character. This puts her under an enormous amount of strain, and gradually her sanity and innocence seem to slip away.
Natalie Portman said in an interview with HitFix that as an actress, she realizes that imperfection is at the core of every human being. Acting, she said, is about portraying a human, and that means portraying imperfection. The art of dance, however, is dependent on perfection. In “Black Swan” Portman has the difficult task of playing the very imperfect Nina, who is a very perfect dancer – and she nails it. Portman, an actress of prodigious skill, has never done anything quite as impressive as this in her career. Her role as Nina is frightening, tragic, and believable. She plays Nina as a quiet girl, but it is thrilling and chilling to watch Portman burst in rebellion from Nina’s controlled life. As Nina tries to disappear into the role of the Swan Queen, so too does Portman disappear into Nina.
French actor Vincent Cassel plays Thomas Leroy, the demanding and conniving Artistic Director of the company. He takes advantage of Nina’s shyness, seducing and confusing her. Adding to Nina’s worries is new dancer Lily, played by Mila Kunis. Lily is everything Nina is not: wild, imperfect, and independent. Kunis is a marvel as well, holding her own against Portman. The two play off each other fantastically.
Both do the majority of their own dancing. Portman trained for her role for ten months prior to filming. And both actresses dropped weight to have ballerina bodies: in look and in performance, they both are unrecognizable.
Aronofsky is a master at creating and inflicting Nina’s anxious mood on the viewer. Most of the scenes are darkly lit, and through the darkness Nina can’t quite tell if the faces she sees are strangers, grotesques, or her own reflection. Aronofsky captures Portman’s labored breathing and incorporates it throughout the film so as to make the audience feel her exhaustion and anxiety.
One can’t always tell if the frightening images Nina sees are truly there. Does she really see Thomas and Lily kissing backstage? Does she really bleed and pick at her skin incessantly? Is this all part of her process to become connected to her role, and her art? Or is she simply crazy?
Ballet is an art not to be practiced by the weak or faint of heart. And “Black Swan,” is not for the squeamish. It is violent, sexual, and downright frightening. But Natalie Portman’s performance is so utterly astonishing, and the film is such a sweeping and engaging story that audiences are sure to respond, one way or another.
Erin Bell can be reached at email@example.com.