(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky
The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.
Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the dismay of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.
When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.
Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.
At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.
Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.
Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.
However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.
The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head. Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.
I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.
REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.
REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.
HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.
FINAL RATING: 5/10