by Tim Ross
During the holidays, ballet gains a much higher level of awareness among theater-goers, thanks to the usual offering of The Nutcracker.
This year, ballet gets even more attention and from a far more intense perspective, as “Black Swan” opens in theaters. Natalie Portman stars as a talented but troubled ballerina in a film that pirouettes, jumps and sometimes thuds along.
Darren Aronofsky directs this visually stunning look inside the world of elite ballet dancers as two young women vie for the lead role in Swan Lake. It’s vintage Aronofsky, more reminiscent of his 2000 film “Requiem For A Dream” than his more recent “The Wrestler.”
All of Aronofsky’s main characters of films past have struggled with a deep physical or psychological flaw, be it addiction, self-loathing, self-esteem or self-importance. “Black Swan” is no exception, with Portman, as veteran ballerina Nina Sayers, grappling against a stress-fueled descent into madness.
That aspect of “Black Swan” is in good hands with Aronofsky, but the story suffers at times as Nina’s self-constructed delusions approach comic proportions.
Nina is a young but supremely talented dancer who gets picked out of the chorus to star in Swan Lake. Her patron is the womanizing and demanding artistic director, Thomas, played with verve by Vincent Cassel. According to Thomas, Nina is perfect as the White Swan Queen, innocent and pure of character, but he is uncertain that she can muster the sensual energy of the Black Swan, which she must dance as well.
To bring out the Black Swan qualities in Nina, Thomas tries browbeating, sexual harassment, mind games and, finally, the threat of replacement. Nina’s backup, Lily (Mila Kunis), embodies the Black Swan’s rule-breaking, raw carnality. It is both electrifying and uncomfortable to watch Nina’s journey to stardom while crumbling emotionally, physically and psychologically.
My only complaints about “Black Swan” were some of the belief-straining moments, especially as they relate to the story and some character interactions. Ballerinas party all night and dance without stretching, Nina and several company members have simple misunderstandings that never get resolved and the aging ballerina, a haggard Winona Ryder, tries to kill herself because she doesn’t get the lead role as usual.
I have no doubt that being a ballerina is a tough business and the competition is fierce, but virtually every ego in “Black Swan” is fragile to the point of incredulity.
Still, the acting is just fantastic with stirring relationships between Portman and Cassel, Portman and Kunis and Portman with Barbara Hershey, who plays her mother. Aronofsky gives every relationship layers and complexity, and that is the most human aspect of the story.
“Black Swan” is paced like Swan Lake the ballet. Just as the White Swan slowly becomes the Black Swan, so does Portman slowly but steadily embrace her darker nature. The movie is scored like a ballet with moments of bursting energy followed by simple piano chords underscoring pain, or exhaustion or contemplation.
Nina’s exploration into the dark reaches of her sexuality, desire and competitive hunger cost her dearly, but she seeks nothing short of perfection. Perhaps the cruelest lesson to be learned in “Black Swan,” like several of Aronofsky’s films, is how difficult living can be once an artist has tasted perfection.
“Black Swan” doesn’t reach perfection, but Portman’s performance gets awfully close and the cast around her rarely misstep. It easily dances into one of the top 10 films of the year and is an exciting way to get your ballerina fix for the holidays.