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Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky recently revealed that his 2008 crowd-pleaser The Wrestler and his upcoming Black Swan, opening in limited release this Friday, originally started life as a single story about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballet dancer.
The two films – which Aronofsky considers to be “companion” pieces – are very much tied together by a love affair, but it is one between the director and his knack for exploring the intricacies of a niche culture. However, where The Wrestler traces the sad downward spiral of an aging pro who can’t let go of his faded glory, Black Swan instead follows a young, fragile ballet star-in-the-making as she hurtles into her first big break.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a technically talented ballerina, but her technique has no fire behind it. She’s a sheltered young 20-something who lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) – herself a failed dancer – and toils at work beneath the shadow of a pampered mega-star (Winona Ryder) in her New York City ballet company. Despite these obstacles, Nina gets a break when the company’s mad genius director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to stage a risky new take on “Swan Lake” with a fresh, young lead. The opportunity comes with its own set of obstacles however, particularly a rival new face in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has all of the fire that Nina lacks but none of her technique.
That’s a rough sketch of the story, but it is hardly what the movie is about. Nina’s struggle is rendered in nightmare relief. Black Swan defies genre in many ways, but it is best described as a psychological thriller. Nina’s doubts and fears manifest on the screen as fevered visions of a dancing black swan-man, a malicious phantom doppelganger and, eventually, a physical transformation. She is tasked with playing dual roles: the White Swan, for which her perfect technique is ideally suited, and the Black Swan, which requires her to let go and be swept up in the moment. The pace becomes increasingly unhinged as Nina struggles to find her fire.
Portman plays it perfectly. Her Nina is repressed, emotionally beaten down by her passive-aggressive mother and sheltered from the realities of the world. She’s all technique and no passion because her life has been so laser-focused on the learning that she’s never been able to simply let go. Quiet, reserved Portman exudes a nervous anxiety; at any moment you feel like she could break out into a cathartic bout of tension-releasing screams. She internalizes everything instead, and her fears quite literally come to haunt her as a result.
It’s hard to choose a standout among Portman’s supporting cast, but Kunis’ Lily is definitely the likeliest contender. An odd relationship develops between Nina and the new arrival in that they are rivals but also sisters-in-arms, and moreso on both counts as the narrative progresses. As Lily comes to haunt Nina’s visions, Kunis is faced with the uniquely challenging task of playing both her own character and the personification of what Nina strives to tap into. She rises to it; after showing much promise in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kunis finally has the opportunity here to let her talents as an actress hang out for all to see. The pair of black swan wings tattooed on Lily’s back are symbolic within Aronofsky’s tale, but they also represent a sort of spreading of the wings for Kunis herself.
The rest of the supporting cast do their jobs admirably as well. Nina is the emotional core of the film, but the people surrounding her breathe life into her story. Cassel’s Leroy is the loudest voice in pushing Nina to let go; the eccentric director employs fear tactics and seduction in attempting to elicit an emotional response from his new star. Cassel brings the required amount of sleaziness to the character while still bringing across the fact that he’s clearly a brilliant artist in his own right.
Ryder’s Beth MacIntyre, on the other hand, is the end of the road for Nina personified. She’s a fading star, a young woman who is nonetheless too old and too far past her peak to captivate audiences. Ryder has the smallest amount of screen time of the supporting cast, but she uses it well; her descent into Beth’s depression-fueled breakdown effectively offers Nina a glimpse of the dark ends that fame can lead to.
The source of Nina’s repression is her mother, Erica. Hershey is ideal for the role; she is a terrifying presence in Nina’s life, harboring an obsession with her daughter’s success as a salve to her own failures as a dancer. Like the nightmare visions that haunt Nina, Hershey’s Erica is a constant presence, and an intrusive one. She snoops, she doles out passive-aggressive guilt trips by the handful and she keeps Nina on speed dial to better keep track of where she is at all times. Hershey’s strong performance makes it quite clear where the roots of Nina’s anxieties lie.
There to bring this cold, calculating cast of characters together is Aronofsky. Nina’s fire may be lacking, but the director brings his A-game. As with The Wrestler, in Black Swan we are offered a glimpse into this very self-contained world. Alongside the rising tension and the visions are loving close-ups of the ballet dancer’s process. Ballet slippers being broken in and laced, legs bending and stretching in warm-up exercises, catty performer-to-performer infighting… it’s all there, and all convincingly presented to illustrate the daily routines of your average ballet dancer.
Of course, Nina is the focal point. The camera frequently tracks tightly behind Portman’s head as she walks, an over-the-shoulder perspective that puts the viewer square in this one dancer’s world. There are plenty of epic, sweeping performance shots – this is the spectacle of ballet, after all – but Nina is always a presence. Even when we lose sight of her in the crowd, her labored, nerve-wracked breathing tends to rise up above Clint Mansell’s excellent score.
Forget about awards season predictions or assigning Black Swan a ranking within Aronofsky’s larger body of work. Those conversations will surely happen, but above all Black Swan is a triumph, every bit the deep-dive exploration that The Wrestler was and yet dramatically different in tone. It is terrifying and mesmerizing in equal measures, wracking nerves even as it entertains. Aronofsky’s passionate love affair with worlds unknown to us has not waned since The Wrestler, but Black Swan indicates that they’re going through a rough patch right now. And for that we should be thankful.
Black Swan opens in limited release on December 3, 2010.