Darren Aronofsky is one weird dude. I saw his first film, Pi, and at about the time where the human brain was just lying around on the floor, the weird idea germinated in my head. Requiem for a Dream followed suit, although it at least had the “excuse” that all the wacked out stuff you were seeing was a result of drug use and not just insanity for insanity’s sake. My point in this very brief film history is that Aronofsky is not one to direct happy-go-lucky family films. Ironically, the only movie of his I have not seen is The Wrestler, which is the biggest critical and commercial success he ever had…until Black Swan. Black Swan definitely falls into the weird category. It’s dark, oppressive, and utterly captivating. Aronofsky deserves some of the credit, but the real star and the main reason to see the film is Natalie Portman. I know, here I am, another dude on the internet saying “OMG NATALIE PORTMAN IN BLACK SWAN, OSCAR LOCK!”. I’m quite aware it’s not an original position. But really, I challenge anyone to see the film and not walk away feeling the same.
Portman plays Nina, a life long ballerina who longs for the spotlight. She’s toiling away as a background dancer in a prestigious ballet troupe, helmed by Thomas Leroy, played here brilliantly by Vincent Cassel. As the reigning star Beth (Winona Ryder in a small but important role) starts to wind down her career, the chance for somebody new to lead the production of Swan Lake presents itself. Nina sets out to get the part, battling her self-doubt, sexual tension with Thomas, and new competition in the form of a rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis), new to the troupe. So I realize, this all sounds like a lifetime original production. In fact, it totally could be. But this is an Aronofsky film. So what could be a pretty cliché story becomes something else entirely. Swan Lake requires the lead to play both the innocent and virginal White Swan and the scheming seductress Black Swan. Nina has the whole white swan thing nailed, but doesn’t quite have that Black Swan attitude. I hate spoiling anything from a film, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you know where this is going. In searching for her inner Black Swan, Nina starts to lose her grip on her identity and more importantly, sanity.
The visual style of the film is excellent at conveying Nina’s character arc for two reasons. One, this entire movie is from Nina’s perspective. She’s in every scene and the audience always sees and hears through her eyes. Two, this is one of the most claustrophobic movies I have ever watched. The camera work is all close-ups or very tight over the shoulder shots of Nina, even when one would think space is easy to come by. The large practice floor, or hell even the stage, become not wide open space but oppressively small. There is a slight Bournesque shaky cam at work at a few points, which only serves to make us as an audience slightly uncomfortable. Which is exactly what the movie is going for. The building tension starts quickly and never dissipates, which I think the camera plays a huge role in. As Nina’s struggles intensify the screen is almost BEGGING for a wide shot, anything to convey that the world is bigger than the events we’ve seen thus far, but Aronofsky never lets up. For good and bad, the audience remains right with Nina every step of the way.
As nerve-wracking as it is, staying with Nina was the ring thing to do, because Natalie Portman is a tour de force of acting in this film. From her interactions with her overbearing mother (an also excellent Barbara Hershey) to dealing with the eccentric and lecherous Thomas, Portman always brings Nina across as believable and relatable. She runs the gamut of emotions from happy, sad, scared, paranoid, angry, defiant, and everything in between almost effortlessly. I knew Portman had range (Star Wars to V for Vendetta comes to mind) but to show it all in one film is impressive. She’s aided by an excellent supporting cast, in particular Mila Kunis as Lily. I have to give Kunis a ton of credit for her development as an actress. Portman could ALWAYS act (The Professional was 1994 and she was what, 12? 13?) . As a viewer of That 70’s show however, I can tell you that Mila Kunis at one point could NOT act. She was constantly on the verge of cracking up and/or smiling, especially in the early episodes. She was funny and she was good-looking, but a future in Oscar nominated films did not seem a likely course. Maybe it’s just a function of me getting old, but I’ve seen her go from unable to hold it together for a whole scene, to having an incredible presence in this film. She servers as the counterpoint to Nina. If Nina is the white swan in her real life, Lily is the black. Kunis nails the free-spirited wild child. In a scene involving the two of them out at a restaurant, it’s Kunis who the waiter hits on, and it’s Kunis who attracts the attention of two guys at the bar. I don’t care how innocent and undersexed a character Portman was playing, dudes ignoring Natalie Portman is weird. It’s a credit to both the actresses that Kunis being the alpha female seems natural in context.
Speaking of sex, lots of talk around this film centered on the now (in)famous lesbian scene between Portman and Kunis. Multiple people told me I had to see the film just for that scene alone, it was an obligation of being a dude. In a strange way I can compare any sex scenes in Black Swan to violence in something like Pulp Fiction. They’re both talked up and have people in a tizzy, but if one REALLY thinks about what was on screen, the mind of the audience probably does most of the work. There are numerous sex scenes in Black Swan, but there is never any nudity. The phrase “tastefully shot” comes to mind. Aronofsky knew that having two actresses in a love scene might overshadow the movie itself, so he wisely made the scene in question JUST weird enough that you remember it not just for the girls, but for the important point it serves. I’m sure the internet will be full of pages thanking Aronofsky for this scene on a purely visceral level, and yeah it’s definitely hot. I give him more credit for making it not overshadow the rest of the film and feel like it belongs not just for the “omg” value.
I usually don’t have a ton of thoughts on the make up of a film. Usually when that category rolls around come Oscar time and some period piece wins it and I yawn. However, the different looks the characters go through, especially Portman, were pretty incredible. It’s not often I can say that I felt like the make up was almost part of the character development, but really, just take a look at the poster. Another smaller thing that deserves credit is the sound. The sounds of ballet, much like the make up, are not something I felt like I was missing as a cinema goer. But be it the creak of the boards in her apartment as Nina practices dancing, the scuffling of the ballet shoes, or the snip of her nail clippers, each is amplified and important. Those sounds more fully envelop the audience in Nina’s world, which had to happen for the film to work.
Black Swan is not the movie I most enjoyed this year (Inception). It is also not the most technically well made (hello Social Network). However, it does carry THE performance of the year in Portman, and lies very close to those others on almost every level. It’s part ballet drama, part character study, part horror movie, and has some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen. It pains me to NOT talk about them, but as I usually say when I review movies, the less you know going in the better. A movie that can still surprise deserves that chance.
But if you insist on knowing more, check out another review here.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | best actress, Black Swan, black swan lesbian scene, Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky, Elrood, Inception, mila kunis, Natalie Portman, Oscar, pi, requiem for a dream, swan lake, that 70's show, The Professional, The Social Network, the wrestler, vincent cassel, white swan