I’ve admired Natalie Portman’s acting ability since I first saw her in The Professional opposite Jean Reno. I think she was 12 years old at the time. I knew, after seeing her portrayal of Mathilda, that she would go far in Hollywood. Her roles in V For Vendetta and Closer cemented my belief. And now there is Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s darkly thrilling examination of a fragile ballet dancer who unravels while preparing for the biggest role of her career. Portman won this year’s Best Actress Oscar for bringing Nina Sayers to haunting life. It was her first Academy Award*, but I doubt it will be her last.
Set against the backdrop of a ballet company readying itself for a new season, Black Swan traces Nina’s relationships with her mother (Barbara Hershey), her rival Lily (Mila Kunis) and dance director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) while keeping her mental fragility firmly in focus.
Portman spent months preparing for the role, paying for private ballet lessons several times a week. Her dedication paid off on screen – she is entirely convincing as an established dancer.
The film kicks off with Thomas’ declaration that the latest production will be Swan Lake. He tells his assembled troupe: “We all know the story… Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself, and in death finds freedom. Good morning company. We open our season with Swan Lake – done to death, I know, but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral and real. A new production needs a new swan queen – a fresh face to present to the world. But which of you can embody both swans? The white and the black?”
And so begins Nina’s journey into herself. She is determined to land the lead role and her already obsessive nature is exacerbated by the now all-encompassing quest for perfection. Aronofsky guides the narrative by zooming in on Nina’s claustrophobia – in her home, in her relationships, in her own body – and the concept of duality, which is everywhere… Nina is a grown woman being treated like a child by her mother. She is objectified by Thomas as his future “little princess” and star of the stage, but also desired by him. And she is at war with herself, with the two sides of her personality, with the expectations of everyone around her as well as her own repressed wants and needs. The internal battle is one that Nina fights, but ultimately loses, and Aronofsky relies on a series of visual metaphors to hammer home how deeply prolonged mental, physical and emotional strain can impact the human mind.
Portman is brilliant. She shows us every nuance of Nina’s decline… An effortless pirouette and she’s the white swan; a sultry dark look and she’s the black swan. She certainly commands our attention, but Cassel proves himself to be a scene-stealer time after time. As a real-life capoeira** practitioner, he has the body of an athlete and the grace of a dancer. He brings a visceral realism to the role, and although he doesn’t dance in Black Swan, his physicality makes him believable as a former prince of the stage. As Thomas, he exudes power and raw masculinity – and gives the impression that he exploits both traits in the seduction of his dancers. He is a complex character – sometimes a lover, sometimes a fighter, but always an expert manipulator.
I think Black Swan is a triumph. Aronofsky’s attention to detail – down to the minutiae of every scene – is what sets him apart from other directors. And don’t be fooled… This isn’t a movie about ballet. It isn’t even a pure drama. It’s somewhere between a thriller and a horror, with a generous dose of suspense to keep you guessing from beginning to end.
* Portman was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2005 for her role as Alice in Mike Nichols’ Closer. She received widespread critical acclaim despite not winning the Academy Award. She did, however, take home the Golden Globe that year.
** Capoeira is a Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial art, sport and music. It is known for its quick and complex moves, as well as various acrobatic take-downs and choreographed ground strikes.