Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin
Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy
Mila Kunis as Lily
Winona Ryder as Beth MacIntyre
Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers
Runtime: 103 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
Aronofsky’s latest foray into insanity is not for the light of heart. The movie is as brutal as it is beautiful.
The atmosphere at the Virginia Film Festival’s sold-out opening night film, Black Swan, was convivial—the audience was comprised largely of older people who chatted amongst themselves and clapped heartily at the mention of each festival sponsor. It seems about half the audience had absolutely no idea what they were in for. Darren Aronofsky’s films (which include Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler) roil with striking, horrific imagery and raw performances. They’re movies that even movie buffs can’t watch frequently because they burrow between your ribs and clutch your heart. Requiem for a Dream in particular will leave you feeling like the morning after chugging a bottle of whiskey and losing an ill-advised barfight. Black Swan, which stars the inimitably lovely Natalie Portman, effervescent TV star Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel, is the same: visceral, extraordinarily tense, and utterly devastating.
Nina Sayers (Portman) dances in a New York City ballet company run by Thomas Leroy (Cassel). When veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) retires, Nina wages a meek but determined battle for the lead role in Swan Lake, which encompasses both the vulnerable, virginal White Swan and the evil Black Swan. Nina lives in a tiny, pastel-colored apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey), an emotionally unstable former dancer. Nina’s bedroom is painted in pink butterflies and adorned with fluffy stuffed animals; Mother tucks her in every night, removing Nina’s earrings and winding a music box. Nina’s restrained, uptight innocence is so jarring that when other characters curse or joke, their crass words clash dissonantly with Nina’s insular world. Leroy and fellow dancer Lily (Kunis) work to chip away Nina’s composure, to break her down until she can dance with the passion required for the Black Swan…and as Nina’s walls crumble, she descends into complete insanity.
As the movie progresses, bubbly, frank Lily takes on a menacing, erotically-charged presence in Nina’s mind. Kunis and Portman share an (allegedly tequila-facilitated) sexual encounter that’s as disturbing as it is sexy. Kunis is known best as bitchy-but-loveable Jackie in “That 70s Show,” and with Lily, the actress showcases her skill with comic timing and her contagious smile. In Aronofsky’s hands even Kunis’s graceful ease, so disparate from Nina’s rigidity, becomes ominous. Lily and Nina become interchangeable in Nina’s mind, and her sexual awakening becomes sinister, narcissistic, equally threatening and pleasurable. Cassel’s Leroy is a slimy egotist who abuses his power to sexually manipulate Nina.
Nina’s innocence mirrors that of the White Swan, certainly; what’s more interesting is comparing Nina’s arc from virtue to lunacy to Natalie Portman’s career. The child actress never quite managed to outgrow her sweet persona—even when she played a stripper in Closer there remained a thin veil between Portman and the character, something that didn’t quite mesh. In Black Swan, Portman shreds the veil and virtually becomes Nina, both vulnerable and insane, White Swan and Black Swan. For once the actress’s doll-like features and tiny stature work in her favor. It appears she lost weight for the role, and physically she looks absolutely fragile, as though she might shatter like the spinning porcelain dancer in her music box. Nina’s angelic face evokes a wounded animal; when she tries on a smile for size, it’s a completely unfamiliar experiment. Like Nina, Portman is perfect for the role of White Swan, but to watch her take on the darker side of Nina is astonishing. It’s her best performance to date.
Ballet is an art form that stretches the human body (and according to film history, the mind) to its utmost limits. Black Swan is brimming with violent imagery spurred by injury and anguish both real and imagined. Aronofsky emphasizes broken toenails, a displaced diaphragm, a bloody hangnail, and snapping ankles with crackling sound effects. Nina’s breathing underscores much of the film, keeping the viewer on edge like a panicked heartbeat in a horror movie. To break in new shoes, dancers score, bend, beat, and crack the soles. Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan, both narratively and cinematographically, is as brutal as this process: she goes from stiff and inexperienced to beaten, broken, and “perfect.” The innate artifice of professional dance requires from dancers constant vigilance, a pervasive focus on the body, a spotlight on physical beauty and grace. The film implies that dancers only amount to what’s reflected back to them: as Nina’s world begins to collapse, mirrors and doppelgangers take center stage. Leroy first appears monstrously distorted in a studio mirror, Nina’s own reflection—often in duplicate—terrorizes her, and she injures herself while staring into her reflection more than once. As she plumbs her inner depths, her physical manifestation haunts her.
Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin crafted a script that trickles details. Exposition is a constant sprinkle rather than a downpour, allowing Aronofsky to build tension until the audience is at a breaking point. Some lines (particularly Cassel’s) are awkward or jarring, and it may surprise completely inappropriate laughter out of you—you have to scream or laugh or else you’ll start climbing the walls. Clint Mansell’s score isn’t as melodic or striking as some others he’s done, but it works well with the raw material. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who was also behind the camera on Requiem for a Dream) shot with Super 16 film, and the result is gritty, unrefined, and unflinching. The actors’ every pore and flaw is visible, and recurring Steadi-Cam gives the film a spontaneous, home-movie feel. Nobody does “crazy” quite like Aronofsky and his effects team (remember Ellen Burstyn and the fridge from Requiem for a Dream?), and Nina’s hallucinations merge flawlessly with the film’s reality—distinguishing between real and imagined in Black Swan is a fool’s errand.
Aronofsky and Portman have the clout to make Black Swan an Oscar contender—as well it should be. As the credits rolled at the Virginia Film Festival, the audience sat in silence. A short moment later, they burst into enthusiastic applause. To fully appreciate the level of psychosis in the film, to trace the threads that weave the world of ballet and insanity together, one needs multiple viewings. But as with other Aronofsky movies, you’ll first have to recover from the initial shock. After you’ve unclenched your internal organs, you’ll probably find you loved the entire brutal, vicious experience.