Black Swan is a coming of age story, albeit a thrillingly horrific one. In just under two hours, we watch a girl become a woman. It’s a thoroughly engrossing story - a narrative ballet on film - enhanced by just-right direction and terrific performances.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a soloist at a ballet company in New York City. (Much was filmed in and around Lincoln Center and the State Theatre, though this company is definitely not City Ballet.) Though she is twenty-something, she still lives and is treated like a 12 year old girl. Her room is full of plush stuffed animals and way too much pink. She lives on the Upper West Side with her failed-dancer mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). Mommy Dearest is completely overbearing and fully infantilizes her daughter, enabling Nina in her obsessive drive toward perfection.
It’s the start of a new season. (We know this through dialogue and also through a montage of Nina breaking and breaking in her pointe shoes - a montage not unlike the one in Center Stage) and Nina is hoping the company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), will make good on his promise to feature her more. When Beth (a stunning, slightly meta, Winona Ryder), an aging dancer (think Wendy Whelan or the just retired Darci Kistler) involuntarily announces her retirement, Thomas must find a new little princess to play the Swan Queen in his stripped down version of Swan Lake. Nina wants this part and, as is typical for her, she practices and practices and practices as she strives for perfection. Watching her dance, Thomas says if he was casting only the White Swan, the part would be Nina’s. But the role of the Swan Queen also dances the Black Swan, the White Swan’s evil twin who tricks Odette’s true love, and Thomas doesn’t believe Nina. She needs to feel the role, not just dance it.
Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), who is a transfer dancer fresh off the bus from San Francisco. While Thomas and Nina watch Lily dance, Thomas comments that her technique is a little lacking but she is free. She is feeling the dance. In order to truly perfectly dance the Black Swan, Nina, the virginal, sheltered White Swan, must become a woman; she must seduce her prince (and the audience); she must let loose and become free. Through her relationship with Lily, encounters with Beth, a seductive pas de deux or two with Thomas, brawls with her mother and visceral, explosive battles with her own psyche, Nina grows up and fully embodies her Black Swan.
Though the acting is great and I’ll comment on that in a moment, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this scintillating backstage story (written by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin) works so well because of Darren Aronofsky’s incredible direction. This particular story is a tricky one to tell. It’s not quite any one genre. If it had been left to a horror director, say Wes Craven, it would likely have come off as campy and the thrills would feel cheap. If it had been treated as solely a psychological character study, say in the hands of Gus Van Sant, it would likely have come off as staid or even melodramatic. It takes Aronofsky’s skill to balance the psychological thriller, complete with moments of pure pathos, hints of horror, raging reality and flights of fantasy, and make the film so satisfying and terrifying to watch.
The dance also helps to tell the story - obviously. Much like how last year’s Crazy Heart would have been nothing but a washed up musician and desert without the music (wonderfully done by T. Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham), Black Swan could not work without the dance, all choreographed by City Ballet’s own Benjamin Millepied. We don’t see tons of dancing, but what we do see helps to tell the story. We see the White Swan’s dance, which is light and ethereal. Then there’s the Black Swan, whose dance with - or rather, seduction of - the prince (played by Millepied!) is, when finally danced perfectly (in spirit and technique) is rapturous. Kudos to Millepied for bringing excitement and freshness to one of the most well known ballets in the cannon. (Other dancers, including City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild and Tiler Peck, were also consulted to help bring authenticity to the film.)
As for the cast, there’s not a weak member among them. Barbara Hershey is top notch as a mother who is living vicariously through the daughter she is controlling. Her attempts to choreograph every one of Nina’s moves become less and less potent as Nina becomes the Black Swan, and Hershey does a good job of unspooling at just the right pace.
Mila Kunis’s Lily walks delicately and well along the line of free spirit and vindictive competitor. Because Nina just might be going crazy, Lily must be played carefully, so as to not give away anything at the wrong moment. Kunis has a contagious smile, which makes her great for showing off, particularly to Nina, the freedom and seductive powers a woman can possess. But in the blink of an eye, she’ll break the smile and give you the iciest stare - keeping Nina and the audience en pointe the whole time.
Perhaps most crucial among the supporting characters was Vincent Cassel’s performance as Thomas. In many dance movies (I’m thinking in particular of Robert Altman’s The Company), the
head of the company is depicted as controlling; maybe a womanizer; always a jerk. Thomas isn’t quite a new dance, but rather a variation on a theme. Instead of this figurehead being only that, Cassel’s enticing performance allows us to see why he’s doing what he’s doing. In one of his first encounters with Nina, when she has come to him to ask for the role of the Swan Queen, he grabs her and kisses her. This isn’t some sexual power play: He’s the bait, trying to get Nina to bite (not literally, though she does that, too). He needs to see that Nina has more than technique in order to properly dance the Black Swan. He’s trying to get Nine to show him something - to show some ruach... good, bad - something honest, something felt in the moment, not rehearsed for hours on end. It’s a credit to Cassel that Thomas, in spite of his sexually explicit conversations and roving hands, is not some one-dimensional sexual pervert but rather a ballet director trying to get the best performance from his dancer.
And that dancer is virtuosically played by Natalie Portman. In order to play a dancer who transforms herself, Portman the actress transformed herself, training for nearly a year so she could look and move like a prima ballerina. But it’s not just the dance moves. Portman usually talks in a low, dry, unimpressed voice. When the film begins, her words are clipped. She loses some of the rasp and speaks in a higher register, so when she cries out “Mommy,” she sounds like a lost little girl. By the end of the film, when she is in the middle of destroying her demons and yells out, “It’s my turn!” her voice tells you she is a woman - not someone to be trifled with. Portman has brilliant moments of both innocence and possibly demonic possession, but all of them are raw and feel honest - true to Nina’s transformation.
Swan Lake on stage is not one of my favorite ballets (though I liked Peter Martins's version last winter). But Swan Lake on film, with the story of the ballet being paralleled by Nina’s journey, is fantastic. The attention to detail in Black Swan, right on down to the end credits, along with sensational directing and chilling performances, make this a crazy scary good film.
- Photo Coverage: New York premiere arrivals; after party
- Wendy Whelan, a NYC Ballet principal dancer, reviews Black Swan
- Anatomy of a Scene: NY Times feature with Darren Aronofsky