Nina Sayer, the prima ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s new thriller, “Black Swan,” strives for perfection, pirouetting and plieing with technique irreproachable, but without feeling; a master of precision without depth. “Black Swan” is structured around her yearning for the release from her self-imposed limitations, her inability to let go, and find the passion in her art. “Black Swan” is visually arresting, psychologically assaulting, a masterwork of technique and passion that feels like Aronofsky has truly found his own Black Swan within.
At the beginning of the film Nina’s dancing, like Aronofsky’s first three films, feels hollow. Every step is perfectly timed, practiced, and thoroughly thought through. What Nina (Natalie Portman) lacks is the emotional connection to the movements that could inspire an audience. She is told as much from the New York City Ballet Company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), as he tries to select the new Swan Queen for his production of “Swan Lake.” After flubbing her audition for the part, Nina wants to change Thomas’ mind, but when faced with having to push for what she wants, Nina backs down. Thomas challenges her, forcefully grabbing her in a kiss. Initially she gives in, only to bite back literally. She fears this may have ended her career, but by drawing blood Nina proved there was a darkness inside her that could be the missing piece in her achieving perfection.
Sex, violence, art, and release are all intertwined in “Black Swan,” and it sometimes becomes hard to distinguish one from another. At the outset Nina is uptight, prim and polished, whose only violence is directed inward through a history of incessantscratching, a self flagellation for her belief in her own imperfections. After selecting her as the Swan Queen Thomas finds her prudishness perfect for that of the White Swan, but a hindrance for that of the Black Swan, the freer, darker mirror. As an example he points out the dancing of the newest company member, Lila (Mila Kunis), imprecise, but seductive. “She’s not faking it,” he says. Thomas uses the Lila’s overwhelming sexual energy as a weapon, trying to prod Nina into letting go. Later, he uses his own, seducing Nina, and then stopping mid kiss, leaving her sexually awakened, but lost. “That was me seducing you. It is supposed to be the other way around.”
Through this taunting Nina sees Lila as alternately a rival, and a mentor in finding what she needs to portray the Black Swan. “You really need to relax,” Lila tells Nina, and that she does as the two tear through New York’s club scene fueled by drugs and sexual tension, but as Nina loosens up, so does her grasp on reality.
The script by Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin and Mark Heyman is dark as midnight, and a well crafted telling of “Swan Lake” with a twist, but it is Aronofsky’s direction, and as a result, the cast’s performances that bring this film up the to the heights it achieves. Rumored to be as demanding and torturous to his actress as Thomas is to Nina, Aronofsky pushes Natalie Portman to the performance of her career. Lithe and fragile as the White Swan, ferocious and sensual as the Black, Portman is tremendous.
Vincent Cassel is equally as good, his Thomas able to obliterate Nina’s world with an off-handed exhalation of breath. The character exudes a cultured smarminess that cares only for his production, and nothing for the dancer who is slipping away before his eyes. From the point he casts Nina with a bloody kiss Cassel makes it hard to tell what Thomas’ sexual motives are toward the naïve girl, whether he is pushing Nina’s sexuality as a means to elicit a better performance, or just wants to get in her tutu.
Of all the leads it is only Mila Kunis that sticks out. That is not to say that she was bad, or even miscast. Her seductiveness is beyond reproach, though her easy-breezy demeanor seems a little out of place in the tightly controlled atmosphere of the film. Though this is the point of her character in the film, the actress is almost too real in a very theatrical film.
The acting, while being the filling in the pie, Aronofsky is the crust that keeps the whole thing together. His even hand crafts a film of such tension that draws from, and arguably surpasses, the early work of Dario Argento. The films supernatural elements do not over power the psychic tension Aronofsky invokes in the viewer, creating an atmospheric and scary horror film for the NPR set.
With “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” taken in the context of his cannon, it feels like Aronofsky has hit his stride as a filmmaker. In contrast to his earlier work, which was overly and overtly cerebral nonsense, these last two films have brought that erudition on par with the emotional impact on the audience. With his next project, the “X-Men” spin-off, “The Wolverine,” he continues his slide into the hoi polloi, and it will be interesting to see if he can infuse his highbrow tendencies into the often-lowbrow world of Marvel Comics. Maybe it will be “Iron Man” by way of The Harvard Crimson.
El Luchador Rating:
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)