Black Swan

December 8, 2010

Ballet is a peculiar art form in today’s society.  Now, I’m not just saying that because I don’t understand it, though that is certainly part of it.  I mean that it feels like such an anachronism and yet it surely one of the toughest and most competitive performance arts around.  For something that has become a cultural byword for “boring crap your girlfriend always wants to do”, the physical turmoil for the performers is disproportionately brutal.  Or so it seems to me, for I do not run in circles in which the ballet is a regularly attended event on the social calendar.  All of this is to say that it is something of a niche art form, and one gets the impression only the obsessively dedicated, passionate, and in some ways masochistic ever really make it.  There is a scene in Black Swan in which Nina (Natalie Portman) and her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) are in a bar talking to some guys they just met.  They know nothing of the ballet aside from having heard of Swan Lake, and Nina begins to excitedly tell them about it and offer them tickets.  Lily changes the subject, knowing full well that these guys and, well, most people don’t care.  Nina doesn’t understand that.  Her life has been the ballet, and the film is about an obsessive artist who knows nothing else and cannot come to terms with anything beyond it.

Nina is a ballet dancer in a company that is about to do a new rendition of The White Swan.  When the previous star, played by Winona Ryder, is ousted she auditions for the prime role.  No cliché is left out as we learn she has amazing technique but lacks the sexual passion the role of the Swan Queen’s alter ego, the titular Black Swan, requires.  She eventually gets the role, but as she pushes herself to find that passion she falls deeper and deeper into black hole of sexual confusion and paranoid fantasy, all of which leads up to the opening night performance.

Darren Aronofsky combines the relentless tension of his first two features, Pi and Requiem for a Dream with the tight, verité style he employed in his very-good-but-a-little-forced character drama (read: awards bait) The Wrestler to produce the best work of his career.  The judicious use of close-ups makes everything tight and claustrophobic and the swift handheld camera movement is more nervously jerky than the flowing grace you would expect in a ballet sequence.  The poise and beauty in the performance comes from anxiety and inner turmoil.  The deeper into the Lacanian nightmare, the more impressive Aronofsky’s use of mirrors becomes.  Instead of expanding the space, they seem to collapse it right onto the character.  The self is inescapable, and all those imperfections and failings are staring (eventually, literally) right back at Nina.

It is important to accept the film on those terms. The paraphrase a character from Buffy, the subtext rapidly becomes text.  This is not a subtle picture by any means, certainly not by the end.  However, it is finely crafted insanity and it does well to ease us into its level.  There’s the mysterious rash, and then there’s the skin above the nail that pulls just too far, and before you know it, you’re watching the best body horror effects this side of Cronenberg.  It’s a strangely natural progression, and once accepted as melodrama, it never steps wrong and throws us out of the mood.  Of course, that melodrama is key.  It only makes sense for a film about ballet to allow ballet to inform the film itself.  It’s dizzying and completely over-the-top, and you can call it camp or kitsch or whatever you like, but whatever it is, it pulls off perhaps the most joyous and horrifying cathartic release I’ve seen in the cinema this year.

A special kudos should be set aside for Portman, who is excellent here.  She brings with her a kind of innocent beauty that both she and Aronofsky exploit perfectly.  It isn’t the deepest or subtlest of characters, but being at the (extreme close up) center of a film like this is difficult, and she handles her character’s transformation (both mental and physical) perfectly.  It’s a credit to her skill that she really didn’t need to the red eye lenses.

A times horrifying, emotional, ridiculous, intelligent, funny (this might be the first Aronofsky feature where humor comes from the film and not just a character), and oddly beautiful, it really is an achievement.  It’s also, tellingly, the most self-conscious and least self-serious film in Aronofsky’s body of work.  He seems to have found the level that best suits his style (technical, thrilling, and a little cheap) and he runs with it, like he’s really having fun for the first time.  It could so easily have been a disaster, but Black Swan achieves something approaching greatness with balance and poise.*




*Please feel free to substitute your own awful last


One Response to “Black Swan”

  1. James C. Says:

    Great review without telling too much, which is a “dance” of writing that must be as poised and intricate as ballet itself. Take a bow.

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