For fans of Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan engages some of the director’s best tropes. It is thankfully more Pi than The Wrestler, more Requiem for a Dream than The Fountain. Throughout the movie, I had the vague feeling that I should be bored by what I was seeing, but instead I was constantly engaged. Even some of the mundane and tired aspects of this genre felt fresh and new under the hand of Aronofsky and the panicked eye of Natalie Portman.
Reading the plot of the film, it seems like a standard dance movie, an overwrought film about any sort of art that requires torturous dedication from its performers. Natalie Portman plays a ballerina, and there isn’t much more to her character than her love for dance. But she’s not one-sided. In fact, it is her attempts to push away from this character that make the movie so fascinating, if not heavy-handed at parts.
Near the beginning of the movie, Portman becomes the premiere dancer in a New York troupe based out of Lincoln Center. She wins the role of the Swan Queen in a refreshed look at Swan Lake, stealing the lead position from the aging former prima donna, played by an angry and one-dimensional Winona Ryder. From the start, Ryder is furious about losing her role, and the few scenes in which she appears don’t deviate from exactly the sort of behavior you would expect from a clichéd antagonist.
But she is the only character in the film who truly sticks to the clichés. What I liked about this movie is the way Aronofsky sets up a familiar relationship, but bends and flexes his characters in unusual ways.
Vincent Cassel plays the artistic director of the dance company. At first he comes across as shallow and sleazy. He condescends to his dancers and puts on a haughty air. When he calls Nina, Natalie Portman’s character, into his office for a private chat, we know exactly where he’s going. But he never gets past a single kiss, and that alone is enough to convince him that Nina is worth taking a chance for the lead role.
Throughout the movie, Thomas, Vincent Cassel’s character, pursues Nina, but not as voraciously as the same character might under the influence of a more heavy-handed director. Cassel plays the character walking on the fine edge between honest instructor and lecherous authoritarian. When Thomas urges Nina to awaken her own sexuality in service of playing the darker side of the Swan Queen role, we question his ulterior motives, but he never crosses the line. He seems to genuinely believe that an awakening would benefit Nina’s performance, and Ms. Portman’s restrained, near-virginal ballerina has us believing him.
At home, Nina is hounded by her mother, Erica, played by Barbara Hershey. Again, the character seems at first to fit into a generic mold. She was a failed ballerina herself. She pushes her child hard. But this isn’t Mommy Dearest we’re watching. There is no beating the daughter with wire hangers. There is no verbal abuse, at least not overtly.
Instead of being cowed by her mother physically, Erica’s abuse is in her very presence. She is too caring, too nurturing, perhaps, and there are brief flashes of obsession. But mostly, Erica abuses her daughter simply by never leaving her side when she is at home. She’s always in the bedroom, the bathroom, the dressing room. She calls often, even though Nina almost never answers the phone. This isn’t a mother who beats her child in reality. Instead, her very presence seems to take its toll on her daughter in Nina’s own head.
Finally, we have Mila Kunis, playing Lily, another dancer in the troupe. You might expect this character to be cunning, backstabbing and cruel. But instead, Kunis uses her comedic chops to play Lily as light and airy, though not without substance. She is earnest and fun, and it is only through Nina’s eyes that we interpret her as being malicious and competitive. When Lily goes behind Nina’s back to complain to the director Thomas, it seems entirely plausible that she had Nina’s best interest at heart. When she congratulates Nina on her accomplishments, it seems genuine, not contrived.
Lily does represent a bad influence on Nina’s intense training routine, but when things turn sour for Nina and she starts to push herself too far, Aronofsky leaves just enough ambiguous space in the film that we can question whether Lily is really to blame, or whether it is all in Nina’s head.
The movie is visceral, as you might expect from an Aronofsky film, but again, think Pi more than Requiem for a Dream. The movie focuses heavily on the feet of the dancer. It feels fresh, a new angle on the hard work and torture that a ballerina must endure. There are cracking toe knuckles, split nails, and even some grotesque transformation of the feet later on in the film. I can remember plenty of dance movies that focus on the arms, the head, the torso, swinging and swaying to music. But Aronofsky focuses almost entirely on the feet, and often against a background of silence, before and after the dance begins.
At its best, the movie does a wonderful job playing up the uncanny elements. I wouldn’t say the film ventures into the supernatural, but at times it might appear to be stretching the boundaries of reality, or at least the bounds of Nina’s sanity. Aronofsky makes wonderful use of reflections. So often, we see Nina in a mirror, or reflected in a window, and movie goers have come to learn that reflections are, by their unfilmable nature, always suspect.
There are also reflections of Nina herself. Occasionally an extra will pass by and make you wonder if Ms. Portman isn’t playing a second or third role in the film. By the end of the movie, though, you’re more sure of what you are seeing. Aronofsky does a nice job building the tension created by reflections throughout the process.
But my favorite moments come in quick flashes that later show up as frightening mutations. At first, you might see something and wonder if it is simply an effect of the hand-held 16mm cinematography. You’ll think, does her skin really look that way, or am I just seeing things? By the end of the movie, you’ll be more sure, but only just before Aronofsky breaks down these uncanny expectations for the finale.
Black Swan is not going to be a movie for everybody. Aronofsky takes a languorous approach to building the plot slowly. The movie mirrors the Swan Lake ballet in many ways, which makes it feel more like a trip to Lincoln Center than a trip to Times Square. The movie plays out like a ballet, which might sound boring to some viewers, as much as it will sound enticing to many of us.