One of live theater’s greatest drawbacks is that it’s an intangible
medium. After the actors have taken their last curtain call and the set
has been struck, it’s all gone without a trace. It isn’t like a movie, a
book or an album, which the creators can put on a shelf in
commemoration of all the time and hard work that went into its creation.
Moreover, there’s no way that anyone in the audience, cast or crew can
rewatch or revisit the performance, except maybe through memories.
Of further interest is that this applies equally to all plays and all
performances. Without a cast recording of some kind, all live
performances — from grade school talent shows to multi-million dollar
Broadway spectaculars — instantly fade into the ether upon completion.
To that end, it must be asked: How much is a great live performance
worth? How much time, effort, blood, sweat and sinew is demanded of
something so impermanent? How much do foolish mistakes or great
accomplishments matter, when neither one will leave any evidence behind?
Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, a young woman whose
life goal is to be nothing less than the perfect ballerina. She’s spent
years with a prominent New York ballet company and her dancing skill is
without question. At the end of the movie’s first act, Nina wins the
highly coveted lead role of the company’s season premiere, “Swan Lake.”
Nina is perfect for the Swan Queen, as she conveys great amounts of
purity and innocence. The problem is that Nina is also responsible for
playing the Swan Queen’s evil twin, the eponymous Black Swan. Because
Nina has devoted her entire life to honing and maintaining her ballet
technique, she’s become extremely inhibited and hopelessly stuck in her
comfort zone. We thus have our struggle, as Nina pushes herself ever
harder to play the sensual and seductive Black Swan.
At its heart and core, this is a film about suffering for art’s sake.
Nina pushes herself to the physical limit in this movie, picking up a
few nasty rashes and cuts as well as some rather startling weight loss,
and we’re there to see every last bloody bit of it. The mental stress is
also crippling, with frequent hallucinations that we witness from
Nina’s point of view. These visions become so frequent and so lifelike
as Nina’s sanity degrades that the entire third act is more or less open
to interpretation. Sure, there’s a baseline of reality there, but
you’re perfectly welcome to draw that baseline where you think it fits
Through it all, the film never forgets to subtly ask if all this
sacrifice is worth it. This issue is mostly personified by Beth
Macintyre, a brief role beautifully played by Winona Ryder. Beth is the
company’s former champion ballerina, recently forced to retire at the
ripe old age of… actually, I don’t think her age is stated outright.
Suffice to say that in the ageist world of ballet, Winona Ryder would be
too old to continue performing. This forced retirement has made Beth
hopelessly bitter and self-destructive to a horrifying extent. In her
past glory and in her current obsolescence, Beth concurrently serves as a
role model for the success that Nina hopes to one day achieve and as a
warning for what she may and probably will become in the near future.
The film takes great pains to depict ballet in a way that feels
authentic. There’s a lot of competition and cattiness among the
company’s ballerinas, something that encourages Nina’s mental breakdown
through paranoia and damaged self-esteem. A lot of screen time is also
given to show how the ballerinas warm up and prepare their equipment.
Hell, this film has more shots of feet than in the wettest of Quentin
But then there are the dance sequences. Darren Aronofsky clearly put a
huge amount of effort into the ballet scenes and it really shows. In
fact, there are several ballet scenes — including the film’s prologue
— that were shot in single, continuous takes. Just think about that.
Ballet scenes that go on for minutes at a time without a single cut.
This would obviously require skilled choreography and dancers talented
enough to go for several minutes without stopping, just as any stage
play would, but this is a movie. There are cameras, lights and boom mics
involved, each with their own crews, all required to stay out of the
shot and out of the actors’ way. This would be especially difficult in a
room full of reflective surfaces, as dance studios usually are. This
means that the dancers, the crew and the equipment would all have to be
painstakingly choreographed with pinpoint accuracy, all moving in
perfect sync for an entire scene to create a long, gorgeous and usable
take. Oh. My. God. Fuck the Oscars, give this team a medal!
And speaking of cinematography, the color scheme for this movie is
very effective. The film has a very washed-out look to it, only
splurging on color during the final performance and for some of the
hallucinations. In particular, many of the dance scenes have a very
stark look, almost completely devoid of any colors save for black and
white. This monochromatic look also extends to Thomas’ office, his
apartment and probably a few other scenes that I didn’t notice. This is a
subtle yet powerful way to reinforce this movie’s theme of contrast.
The movie is filled to the brim with such visual reminders of the Swan
Queen/Black Swan clash, particularly in the costume design.
Needless to say, this movie benefits greatly from Aronofsky’s
direction, but Natalie Portman is the real star here. The role of Nina
is obviously very demanding and Portman gives it the performance of a
lifetime. She sells Nina’s tearful joy at getting the part. She conveys a
perfect mix of confusion and arousal when being seduced. She dances
with confident beauty and she nails every moment of physical, mental and
emotional pain. Nina goes through the whole range of emotions from
agony to ecstasy and Portman is there to deliver every single moment
like a bona fide legend. If her performance here gets half the
recognition it deserves, this role will define Portman’s career for
years to come. God knows she could use it, too: Queen Amidala just isn’t
cutting it anymore.
The supporting roles and their characters are all superlative as
well. First and foremost among them is the play’s director, Thomas
Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel. This guy knows exactly what he wants
and he knows how to get it, though exactly what he wants is anyone’s
guess. Is he trying to help Nina with her role or is he just trying to
sleep with her? Is the guy a brilliant artist or just a sleaze? Maybe
both? All of the various scenes in which Thomas manipulates and seduces
Nina tread this fine line, but Aronofsky does a great job of keeping it
fresh and Cassel wonderfully plays Thomas as a constant enigma. I did
get a little tired of so many characters constantly telling us about
Thomas’ reputation as a Lothario, though. It seemed like a rather
artificial and lazy way to make the point.
Next up is Barbara Hershey in the role of Nina’s mother. Later in
the movie, we learn that Erica Sayers retired from ballet to start a
family at the age of 28 (Nina’s father is never seen or mentioned, so
far as I recall). Given this backstory and how Erica dotes on her
daughter, it’s clear that she’s living vicariously through Nina to some
degree. However, it’s usually quite vague how much parental support is
for Nina’s sake and how much is for Erica’s, and that level of nuance
is a credit to Hershey. Moreover, when the chips come down and Erica
has to choose between supporting Nina’s success and supporting Nina’s
well-being, she chooses her daughter’s well-being every single time.
This does a lot to make the character likable.
Last but not least is Lily, played by Mila Kunis. She’s the wild girl
who’s not nearly Nina’s equal in ballet proficiency, but she has the
vivacity and sexuality that Nina sorely lacks. That’s all we really
learn about her. This would make for a one-dimensional character in a
lesser movie, but this one implicitly acknowledges that we know nothing
about the character, treating it as a mysterious and possibly dangerous
allure that actually strengthens Lily’s character. It also helps that
Lily plays such a central role in several of Nina’s head trips,
constantly leaving us (and her) wondering just how much we know about
Lily is real. Add in some sharp writing and a superbly devil-may-care
performance from Kunis and you’ve got a very fun character to watch.
Speaking of which, I’d like to address this movie’s sexual content.
Chances are good that you already know about the lesbian make-out
session between Portman and Kunis, but just wait until you find out how
far that make-out session goes. This film has more than its share of
masturbation and other sexual acts, yet there isn’t a shred of nudity to
be seen. Aronofsky managed to make sex scenes erotic, sensual and just
plain hot, all without showing anything that would need to be covered
otherwise. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of Jessica Alba’s
pole dance in Sin City and Rose McGowan’s opening tease in Planet
Terror, but Robert Rodriguez never went to the steamy extent that
Aronofsky did here. Then again, I should also mention that this film
shows the other side of the coin as well: A brief yet uncomfortable
scene on the subway makes it clear that looking beautiful for a living
does tend to result in unwelcome attention from unwanted admirers.
I suppose I should wrap up the review with a word on the score,
especially since music plays such a huge part in the premise of this
movie. But why would I bother? In my opinion, Clint Mansell can do no
wrong, especially when paired with Aronofsky. The score is of Mansell’s
usual sterling caliber and music from “Swan Lake” is wonderfully used.
What more can I say?
I cannot overstate how much I recommend that you see Black Swan
at your earliest opportunity. See it for the nuanced characters and the
superlative acting performances, especially from Natalie Portman. See
it for the stunning visuals and the amazing dance sequences set to
amazing music. If nothing else, see it now because you’ll be hearing
about it ad nauseum as the movie awards season continues.