I saw BLACK SWAN at the Toronto International Film Festival and something about it spoke to me more than any other movie I’ve seen in quite some time. Perhaps my own scarring experiences with ballet, as well as the pursuit of perfectionism and the Black Swan within me are responsible, but regardless, it is a film that awoke something in me.
With “Black Swan”, director Darren Aronofsky takes you to the edge and pushes you beyond. Emotionally, visually, and intellectually. It is a visceral experience, set to an intoxicating score and cinematography.
Natalie Portman captures Nina perfectly. She is a fragile, repressed, tight wound dancer who gives everything to the art form of ballet, but very little to her own life. When the former prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), is forced into “graceful” retirement, Nina becomes her replacement in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. Her technical mastery of ballet is undeniable and according to the show’s director (Vincent Cassel), she is a natural fit for the role of the White Swan. But the Swan Queen has a dual side. The Black Swan is seductive, powerful, sensual, sexual…dangerous, even. Is this a side that Nina can unleash in herself?
Nina wants so badly to let go of her coldness, of her detachment, of the lack of passion in her expression – of her complete represssion. You can feel it boiling somewhere underneath, but Nina is unable (or she afraid?) to let go, to embrace a certain part of her nature: The Black Swan that’s buried within her. It hurts her. And it’s almost as painful to watch as a person trying to breath under water. It is nothing short of psychological torture.
Meanwhile, her alternate (played with great balance, restraint, and a touch of humor by Mila Kunis) is able to tap into that passionate intensity with great ease. What she lacks in technical form, she makes up in spirit. This also translates into how she is able to connect with other people and experience everyday life. Nina, however, always stands just outside of herself, almost frozen, never fully managing to embrace the moment and live within it. She leads her life with her head instead of her gut, sheltered.
It is true that “Black Swan” is melodramatic, but there is a self-awareness about it within the film. It even seems to laugh at this realization at times. This melodramatic approach gives off this sense of walking on a tightrope, living on the edge between life and death, art and reality, light and darkness. It is a riveting cinematic game. It is beautiful in both its imagery and in its ability to capture life’s painful moments in the way that it does, with such recognition. On some level “Black Swan” is both disturbed and disturbing.
Inherent in “Black Swan” is the concept of sacrifice for art’s sake. Houdini’s infamous feat of surviving in the water torture cell meant that the master magician underwent great physical torture and risked his life each time he performed the act, all for the audience’s entertainment. Ballet is very similar.
Nina’s bent toes, exhaustion, nail marks and mental state – it’s also all very extreme. The dancers sacrifice so much for their art, for the thrill that the audiences get, they even sacrifice their youth. Nina drives herself to perfection – whatever it takes. Ultimately, she is willing to sacrifice body, mind and soul to become the Swan Queen, to play her…perfectly. And she does.
“Black Swan” will leave you haunted.
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