There’s a question at the center of Black Swan (opening today at Richmond’s Bow Tie Cinemas), and it’s a curious one. My initial impression was that this ballet film would ask us to consider the nature of art, and most specifically: what sacrifices would you make for your art? This pressing question has gotten the better of many a writer, painter, dancer. We see the ruined souls of Raymond Carver, Vincent van Gogh, and here, Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers as the shipwrecks illustrating just how far people were willing to destroy themselves to be great. But there’s more to Black Swan. Director Darren Aronofsky and writers Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz actually asks us, the audience, a deeply troubling question: is this art, here ballet, so important to us that we’re willing to be complicit in the destruction of said artist? Are we really willing to destroy some people for perfection?
I’ve been turning this movie over in my head since I first saw it a few weeks ago. To be frank: I don’t know ballet from a squirrel’s nervous system. Don’t particularly like it all that much. And this: I don’t really enjoy the movies of Darren Aronofsky, or the acting of Natalie Portman. So I went in to Black Swan expecting, at best, another Wrestler-type movie: some great performances wandering through the most cliched plot imaginable, a decent picture that leaves me fairly quickly after I’ve seen it. But Black Swan is a masterpiece, as troubling a movie as I’ve seen in a long time.
The facts: Black Swan opens in a scene of subtle, devastating heartbreak. We see Nina’s bedroom–a silly confection of pink crammed full of stuffed animals, so that it looks like the room of a ten-year-old child. Moments later, at breakfast, mom (Barbara Hershey) serves her daughter a poached egg and half a grapefruit. “Oh, how pretty!” Nina exclaims with delight, remarking on the lovely pink of the grapefruit.
This is the extent of communication regarding Nina’s poor eating habits, what is essentially an eating disorder. Aronofsky and Co. don’t hammer you over the head with how warped and sad the life of this young woman has become–it’s all there, in the many small details surrounding our girl. Your attention is richly rewarded here.
Nina dances for a famous New York City ballet company, who is putting on a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the nonpareil of ballet. We see, almost right away, the infighitng, the dischord, as the former diva, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, outstanding in the one role that is superfluous), is being ushered out because she’s too old. And so it’s wide open. Nina wants that role. Her mother, who gave up dancing to have Nina (there’s no father in this relationship), wants it, too.
But so does everyone else, including the naturally gifted Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily is sensual and raw, and therein lies the problem: the Swan Queen is essentially two people–the frigid, technically brilliant White Swan, who matches Nina’s style perfectly, and the ravaging, sexual Black Swan, ideal for Lily. Of course, only one woman can play that part.
The dance director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), drives his dancers ruthlessly, but his vision is clear, and we’re never certain if he’s rotten, or simply driven. And this is not a story of who wins the part: in short order, he chooses Nina, for after all, it is her movie.
There’s the rub: we begin not to wonder if he can Thomas get both sides of the swan from Nina, but whether she’s able to handle breaking through to perfection, or if this pursuit will destroy her. And here Black Swan turns, employing horror film techniques, as we wonder if Nina’s cracking up, if Lily’s trying to wreck her rival, or if everything’s just normal. Even now I wonder.
Honestly, Black Swan blew me away. For starters, it’s deeply entertaining, fascinating for this non-ballet lover, and thought provoking. Then there’s the cast: Let’s start with Portman, who will bring endearing shame on the Academy if she fails to win Best Actress. Portman’s Nina actually says very little, using her expressions and her dancing to communicate a range of emotion rarely seen in movies. It’s a vulnerable performance, and very brave. Vincent Cassel as the dance director Thomas Leroy is utterly disarming and Mila Kunis… oh, wow, not a great actor by any standard, but brilliant and strange here, so strange and lovely. Barbara Hershey plays Portman’s controlling mother in a way that we both relate to her and are repelled.
Then there’s Aronofsky’s use of detail. After this and The Wrestler, I’m convinced that he’s our greatest director of athletics. This may seem like faint praise, but between this movie and his wrestling picture, he really drives home the pain and pleasure that attracts people to their respective sports. Here, his camera fixates on Nina’s preparing her shoes, her feet, how she dresses. Every little detail must be perfect, including the traction on the bottom of the sole, gouged into the shoe with scissors. When we’re through with Black Swan, we have at the very least a tiny understanding of the aches and pains and tedium of ballet.
But I think what impresses me most is Aronofsky’s utter faith in his audience. As I mentioned before, the little details of Nina’s crack-up, her seeing things, her awful diet, her inability to grow up–none of these are hammered home or repeated endlessly, but shown once, often just in the background, creating an atmosphere of dread (and sadness.)
The characters, too, are complex creatures, each with their own sense of dignity, each one given the utmost respect. It would be easy to have made Cassel’s Thomas a rogue, a bastard we love to hate; so, too, Nina’s mother and rival, Lily, could have been shrews, but we see them in every light, as real people, often with mixed motives, but not Snidley Whiplashes twirling their handlebar moustaches as they tie our heroine on the tracks.
Then there’s Nina. Her destruction is heartbreaking. And this is where I believe Black Swan ventures into uncomfortable territory. It would be very easy to chalk this up to a story of one artist’s collapse, a la van Gogh in Minnelli’s Lust for Life. But as Aronofsky shows, Nina is no adult. She’s been trained for ballet since she was a little child, has never left her mother’s nest, can barely even function as an adult. She has known little pleasure, not in bed or at the dinner table, except to please a coach and win applause.
And so the wreck of this poor girl becomes our responsibility, doesn’t it? Unlike the aforementioned artists–Vincent, Carver–Nina’s had little choice but to follow this career. Ballet is very literally her life. The choice was made for her, by her mother, by her coaches and director, but more importantly, by an audience that demands frail little girls (even when they’re technically and temporally adults) to be perfect. If that perfection ruins them, it’s all the more lovely tragedy, isn’t it?
But there’s a human life in that tragedy, and Black Swan both celebrates that life, and offers its ruin as a sort of cautionary tale, filled with horror. Black Swan ranks up there with the best of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and, like them, it will haunt you for days.