Monday, December 27, 2010
According to my wife, who has taken ballet lessons and danced en pointe at the Boston School of Ballet as well as at a school in San Francisco, Darren Aronofsy’s Black Swan establishes an authentic world of ballet and the obsessive drive for perfection that is part of that world. She identified with the obsessive-compulsive attention to the preparation of multiple pointe shoes, as depicted in the film: taking out the sole padding; sewing on the elastic band; burning the ends of the satin ribbons. She also notes the typical avoidance of food. In one scene, Nina (Natalie Portman) eats half a grapefruit and a poached egg for breakfast; in another scene she recoils from a huge cake her mother has bought to celebrate her getting the lead role in Swan Lake.
Within this world, three characters pose conflicts for Nina as she grapples with excruciating pain, deep-seated envy, tormenting doubt, and haunting paranoia while rehearsing the antithetical roles of the Swan Queen and the Black Swan. Nina has no trouble performing the movements of Odette, the Swan Queen, but she struggles with her interpretation of the evil Black Swan, responding sensitively to the criticisms of her exacting director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who wants her to let herself go and delve deep into her soul. In fact, he suggests that part of her problem is that she seems disinterested in sex. He forces her to kiss him; he suggests that she masturbate. Later, she tries to let herself go during a sensual nightclub escapade with a rival dancer.
But the challenge of performing both Odette and Odile, under a demanding, glowering director who stirs her feelings of inadequacy, is compounded by other conflicts. Nina fears the competition of her alternate dancer, the earthy Lily (Mila Kunis) who has no trouble letting herself go, and who seems to get more praise from Thomas. Nina also feels guilty that Thomas’s previous star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) has been cast aside. This guilt intensifies when Beth ends up in the hospital after stepping suicidally into traffic. Nina also fears that she will end up just like Beth, cast aside after her prime dancing days are over. On top of all this conflict, Nina lives with her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), a smothering, domineering woman obsessed with Nina’s success. Hershey gives a chilling performance as Erica lays on the guilt, controls her daughter, even sleeps in her daughter’s room at night.
In this grim, gripping tale of envy and the obsession with perfection, Aronofsky builds chilling horror as Nina succumbs to madness. Pushed to the extreme physically, at the end of her tether psychologically, Nina’s hallucinations visualize her worst fears and her darkest torment. Somewhat melodramatically, threatening figures lurk on the darkened stage like something out of The Phantom of the Opera, but other delusions are more horrid. Prone to scratch the back of her shoulder obsessively, she finds bleeding scratches and evidence of blood under her fingernails. Pointe dancers typically suffer bloody toes, but for Nina the blood seems compounded by her intensifying conflicts and paranoia. She hallucinates tearing the skin from her finger, and she seems to see the invalid Beth stab herself in the cheek. There is more blood, blood to a Gothic extreme, as she bleeds, actually and metaphorically, for this performance. That most of her torment is self-inflicted is clear when Nina sees herself in the mirror, judging her, driving her on. Meanwhile, her tortured, bleeding skin shows up tiny holes that look like feather follicles, as though she is turning into the swan she is trying to portray.
Throughout, Aronofsky keeps the camera close on the individuals involved in the various conflicts. The camera follows right behind Nina as she walks hurriedly to the theater. Most scenes are filled with close-ups, most often on Nina’s face. Here Portman shows talented dramatic range as her face grows more tormented by doubts and fears. Nina is clearly not having fun. She wants to be perfect. She would kill herself to be perfect. Close-ups also bring the conflicts into threatening proximity. We clearly see Lily’s deviousness and Thomas’s intensity. We see Erica’s terrifying over-protectiveness in every aged wrinkle in her pallid face.
Finally, Nina arrives at the crucial Swan Lake premiere, and Aronofsky depicts the performance action in thrilling fashion, on and off stage. I love it when the dancers come off stage after the famous pas de quartre and one mutters, “We sucked.” What a true moment! I also love when the performer playing Rotbart the Sorcerer, dressed in his menacing black costume, gives Nina a casual greeting. But these moments of realism are juxtaposed with the extreme horror going on in Nina’s mind. Despite her inner conflicts, Nina faces the challenge of dancing the Black Swan, and the result is the year’s most amazing image.
In every respect, the performances are superb, but Portman’s performance stands out as a significant achievement. My wife found Portman’s dancing impressively convincing, but most impressive are the transformations in Portman’s face as it registers a wide range of turmoil. We see her burning desire to win the part of the Swan Queen. We watch as she turns her physical ordeal into a kind of self-flagellation. We follow her through a morass of trepidations that draw her toward madness. All for perfection! But we can certainly identify as we try to be perfect at our jobs or at writing or at painting or at whatever passion that drives us. In Black Swan Nina’s drive for perfection takes her on a very scary journey into a ballet dancer’s conflicted soul, and Aronofsky’s presentation of this journey makes for great filmmaking.