Black Swan

The artistic process is a mystery and is therefore a fertile subject for artists. What goes into creating art?  Hard work for certain; craft–writers need to know grammar and a few tricks to stringing words together in a readable way–dancers need to know how to dance; passion–you need to feel strongly about your subject; and inspiration, just a glimpse at a vision of how you want it to turn out. These elements and probably more all have to come together to create something great. If you’re missing just one, you may create something acceptable, but it will not transcend the way the greatest art does.

In The Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky explores this process in the cutthroat world of ballet. It is the story of Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, a ballerina who has been laboring in the chorus of a New York City company for a few years waiting for the opportunity to dance in a lead role. It comes when the prima, Beth Macintyre, played by Winona Ryder, is forced into retirement. They need a lead for the first production, Swan Lake and Nina’s the best they’ve got. There is a problem, however. Nina is a technically proficient dancer. She rehearses until her feet bleed. But she lacks passion and inspiration and seemingly the ability to mine her life experiences and bring them to her dancing. The director, Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, gives Nina the role, even though he’s unsure that she can tap into her darker emotions to play the black swan, which makes up half the role. As insurance he appoints newcomer Lily, played by Mila Kunis, to be Nina’s understudy. Lily isn’t as technically proficient, but she has the darkness and sensuality necessary to play the black swan. Well, anyone who’s ever seen a backstage drama knows what’s coming next.

Or do they? Most films have elements of expressionism, techniques designed to portray the subjective experience of individual viewpoints. Black Swan is an expressionist film. There are bits of realism here and there but they are hard to distinguish from Nina’s frightening hallucinations. You are constantly having to reassess your understanding of what’s going on. The first clue that this is an unusual film is the overall tone. Everybody, except Nina at first, is so over the top. Of course, they’re in a theatrical setting so that’s not unexpected. Performing artists are like that. But even the biggest drama queens have their down moments.

Then when you see Nina’s mother, Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, a controlling ex-ballerina, who won’t put locks on the room doors in their apartment. Erica wants to live out her dreams through Nina but is also jealous of her success. She shelters her daughter to the point of smothering her. She dabbles in painting, all her portraits are of Nina and sometimes when Nina looks at them, they move. So how much of this is Nina’s madness, you don’t know.

There is also a fascinating theme of duality, starting with the metaphor of the lead in Swan Lake which requires the dancer to play both the virginal white swan and the seductive Black Swan. Plus Nina keeps seeing herself on the subway and in Lily, whom she imagines is trying to take her role. When she looks in mirrors, her reflection moves independently. But it manifests itself mostly in Nina’s alienation from her body, which in itself is a dilemma. How can someone with so much physical control be so ignorant of her sensuality? And when she finally does bridge that gap between what’s boiling inside her and what’s she projecting, the results are devastating.

Natalie Portman is wonderful here. I gather she’s had some ballet training and she handles the dancing well. But her portrayal of an artist, struggling to find her vision is pitch perfect. Vincent Cassel is good as the manipulative director. The role could have been played as a stereotype but he rises above it by showing real compassion for his delicate star. Mila Kunis, plays Lily as the polar opposite of Nina, a sensual being, who’s not as worried about physical perfection.

The photography is beautiful and the camera swoops as it follows the dancers, putting you in the ballet. They use a lot of natural lighting which again serves as a foil for the theme of the heightened emotions being played out. As do the locations set in a perpetually cloudy Manhattan. Even the production of the ballet is stripped down to an almost bare stage. The only beauty is in movement and in drama.

The final duality is the audience’s reaction. In places the film is so intense that it’s hard to watch. And yet you can’t look away.

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