Portman finds beauty in tragedy in Aronofsky’s bizarre “Black Swan”

Natalie Portman embraces the demons of an unstable prima ballerina in "Black Swan."

“Black Swan,” like no other film released in 2010, is a tale full of sound and fury. It does not, however, signify nothing. The opposite is true — Darren Aronofsky’s strange, alluring beast of a motion picture has a number of grand purposes. It’s a melodrama with operatic peaks and valleys, a horror film nearly Gothic in its excess, an arty psychological thriller, a grim character study. Two things secure these many threads together: Natalie Portman’s astonishing performance and Aronofsky’s vision. The director places complete faith in her ability to dissolve herself into not one but two difficult characters. Portman does it so splendidly at times that her own sanity seems in peril.

That’s the kind of performance Aronofsky demands of his actors — total immersion, no excuses. In her own way, as mentally unstable ballerina Nina Sayers Portman goes just as far as Ellen Burstyn did in “Requiem for a Dream.” Both women have lost whatever pitiful coping mechanisms they had. In Nina’s case, it is not drugs that cause her complete break with reality; instead, it is a combination of people and their conflicting demands that turn a hairline fracture into a full-blown spiderweb of fissures ready to shatter. There is her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, deserving of many awards), a domineering, creepy figure living vicariously through her daughter’s successes and failures. She hovers in a way that is suffocating and frightening. No less creepy is Thomas (Vincent Cassel, sublimely sleazy), the company director who beds his stars and fancies himself a revolutionary brilliant enough to reinvent a classic like “Swan Lake.” A textbook cad, he’s cast Nina as his new little princess, the Swan Queen in his pared-down production of “Swan Lake.” He sees the frail, virginal White Swan in Nina’s every move; what he wants is to push his meek ingénue into darker realms, where she can unearth the seductive, evil Black Swan within. Adding still more pressure is competitor Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer with a natural sensuality Thomas finds perfect for the Black Swan, and Beth (a near-unrecognizable Winona Ryder), the alcoholic has-been replaced by Nina as Thomas’ pet, and possibly his lover.

Told straight-forward or even ever-so-slightly skewed, “Black Swan” would be a worthwhile film, even a compelling one. But Aronofsky, with his affection for shuffling and reshuffling the prisms of reality on his characters, rarely cottons to linear storytelling. “Black Swan” is structured in such a way that the one thing Nina can never be sure of — the one thing the audience can never be sure of — is what is real and what is imagined. Is Nina beginning to sprout feathers from her shoulders and under her fingernails? Is Lily her enemy, her friend, or a representation of the darker impulses, the primal needs Nina represses? It’s a road Aronofsky fans know well, but his gift is that he makes every it feel new and personal and harrowing every time. The deeper into the Swan Queen role Nina goes, the more frequent and ghoulish her visions become. Eventually, it’s not possible to tell where the visions end and the real life begins. They could be one and the same; the film’s merging of reality and dreams/hallucinations/visions is a frenzied metaphor for the crash course Nina’s conscious and subconscious mind are set on. As she gives in to the chaos, lets go of her desire for perfection and her need for order, so must the audience. It’s the only way to accept a work like “Black Swan,” where the drama is played — in Clint Mansell’s bombastic score and the alternately sweeping/claustrophic cinematography — past the 10s. 

This may be the very personal story of one woman’s descent into madness (and, some might argue, a complete artistic breakthrough), but it has the timeless, universal feel of a Greek tragedy. Portman manages what few actresses could: to show not just the horror of this meltdown, but the beauty in it too. 

Grade: A

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22 Responses

  1. And she’s back (cheers and catcalls). Eh, didn’t really love this one, and I definitely liked the film more than I liked Portman but it’s worthy of estimation, even if only for its scope.

    And I love Barbara Hershey here.

  2. A beautiful movie and a beautiful review!

  3. Psycho ballerinas and deranged birds. Awesome.

  4. I really enjoyed the movie but I wasn’t as impressed with it as everyone else. There was a lot of fat in the middle. The actors were all great, especially Portman. But I’m still waiting for a truly great film that I know Aronofsky can deliver.

    • @ Encore — I’m kind of a sucker for Aronofsky the way I am for the Coens. This isn’t my favorite film that he’s done (that honor goes to “Requiem for a Dream”) and it’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly a work of art. I hope Hershey gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress — she was really terrific here.

      @ Simon/Ripley — I never really thought a movie about ballerinas could a) be scary and b) have lesbian sex scenes. That’ll teach me to be a skeptic.

      @ Franz — Honestly, I think there was a lot of fat throughout the whole thing! Usually I’m kind of against that — I prefer the less-is-more indie films. But if you’re going for excess, you’d better work it, and Aronofsky does nothing if he doesn’t do that. He commits to going over the top, and then he goes beyond that. He makes movies on HIS terms and no one else’s. And I’d toss in my vote that “Requiem for a Dream” is a truly great film. At the very least, it’s one of the best films about drug addiction that I’ve ever seen because he doesn’t cop out with a happy ending.

  5. I miss reading your eloquent review, M! Well, I was just at the dentist this morning talking about this film. My hygienist actually said it was predictable (not a word I heard being described often about this one) and kinda spoiled the plot for me. Oh well, I was on the fence about seeing this but have decided I’ll give it a shot. I don’t know much about Aronofsky’s work though, so I’ll go in to this with a neutral (for a lack of a better word) expectation.

    • I wish I could offer a better nutshelling of “Black Swan,” but it kind of defies plot summary. There’s so much going on — and so much of it could be a dream, or a nightmare, or a hallucination — that it takes a lot of concentration to sort it out. And it is extremely unsubtle, but sometimes that’s called for.

    • I’m so glad I haven’t talked to anyone about it. I had Shutter Island ruined for me that way.

      • Someone ruined “Shutter Island” for you? That’s a person who needs to get pimp-slapped!

      • Yeah well, my hygienist kinda ruined SI at the same time as she was talking about BS [le sigh]

  6. Unsubtle? From Aronofsky? Go on…:P

    Glad to see you back in the saddle Mer. We missed you. As always smashing write up!

    It took me a day for this to really hit me and I went from liking this to loving it. I wanted to wait a few days for it to marinate before writing my review (it goes up tomorrow btw) and I think Aronofsky has hit his stride with this. It’s the perfect blend of altered reality and a downward spiral that is at times tragically beautiful. That’s my Oscar vote:)

    Although I don’t know how he’ll fare going from this high to Wolverine…but then that’s the sign of a great director, the ability to be versatile.

  7. This was my pick for the best out of 2010. I’ve taken to telling people that the movie was so good it made my face want to explode. I’m not really sure how else to explain my love for the movie.

    It’s also the first film soundtrack that I can’t stop listening to in years. Normally I could care less but every time I have something to do or write I throw the soundtrack on and get to work.

    Everything about this movie just fills me with an odd energy and I can’t wait to devour it over and over when it drops onto Blu Ray.

    • @ Marc — Agreed. I took three days after seeing “Black Swan” to write the review. It’s the kind of movie that has immediate impact and aftershocks. I’m playing catch-up before I do my best of 2010 list, but “Black Swan” is in the top two.

      @ Film Reel — I can’t remember the last time a movie freaked me out the way “Black Swan” did. The talking paintings, the creepy contacts, Portman pulling feathers from under her nails — yipes! It’s as much a horror film as it is anything else, I think. The music only reinforces this because the score is so damn dramatic.

      If Edgar Allen Poe ever made a movie, I think “Black Swan” is what he’d make. Maybe Aronofsky has a bit of Poe in him.

  8. I think the movie was linear, Aronofsky just mixed the world of Nina’s mind and the world of Nina’s reality.

    • Excellent point.

      • And that’s why I went back three times: to separate the two.

        Also, in response to your delayed review of the movie that you mentioned above, I had to wait 13 days to write it. Or, at least to publish it – I loved the movie so much that I wanted to write a review that accurately reflected that adoration.

  9. I don’t know if I’m making a huge leap here, but I’d like to think this movie explains Heath Ledge’s Death.

    I’d like to think “The Joker” penetrated him to the point of neurosis, thus leading towards suicide.

    I don’t know, perhaps Natalie Portman’s didn’t end up dead because her psyche isn’t as malleable as Heath’s? Thus preventing her from being swallowed by the two characters she plays?

    Who knows. All I know is I agree with every single word you wrote here. This is my first time reading this blog and I’m already a fan of your insight.

    • I hope you’re wrong, Nigel, but you may in fact be right. Heath Ledger got hard-core into his characters. I always wondered how an actor could go that deep into a twisted character and come out unscathed. Ledger went very, very dark with The Joker. Maybe he found it impossible to do get back to where he was. Natalie Portman seems more stable and at peace with herself, so I hope she won’t suffer the same fate.

      I have to say that you, sir, with your psychological observations, are a man after my own heart.

    • That’s a freaking excellent point. Now the movie is only becoming more frightening…

  10. I don’t think Ledger’s death has a whole lot to do with taking the role of the Joker; he’d been struggling with his insomnia for some time, and he started taking medication for depression after splitting with Michelle Williams. While I’m sure playing the Joker didn’t help him any (though Christian Bale claimed that Ledger really enjoyed getting into the role, or something to that effect), it’s tough to lay responsibility for his death at the feet of the role when he already had a reasonable history with depression and insomnia.

    And I think it’s hard to compare Nina and the Joker in the first place. For all of the Joker’s amoral, chaotic, and evil behaviors, he’s still a comic book character, and everything he does feels very comic booky. Nina, body horror hallucinations and mental deterioration aside, is a real character going through real stress. If I knew nothing of either actor and you asked me who was more likely to be consumed by their respective role, I’d say Portman.

    Black Swan is absolutely spectacular. I love what it does for Portman, an actress who’s shown clear talent over her career but never found a role quite this juicy, and I love that it continues Aronofsky’s fascination with how far people push themselves in the pursuit of their craft (and what that over-extension does to them). I also love what it says about performance art; characters like Randy from The Wrestler and Nina don’t leave behind something physical to remember their art by, so they’re basically spending the entirety of their respective stories striving for this fleeting, temporary moment that’s over as soon as it happens. I think that’s beautiful.

  11. […] “Black Swan” The quest for perfection sends Nina (Natalie Portman) into a tailspin of delusions in "Black […]

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