En pointe break
Natalie Portman will break your heart and freak you out as Nina, the unhinged ballerina striving a little too hard for perfection in Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing and hallucinatory Black Swan.
Portman tears into this role with such raw power it’s a wonder if she will have anything left in the tank for future films. Take into account what she has accomplished mentally and physically in this movie, and you have one of the grander achievements by any actor or actress in the past year.
While Portman had a body double for some of the more difficult moves, we see her executing much of her own complicated dancing thanks to a year’s worth of intensive training with world class dancers. This is not the waltz or disco; Portman executes some serious, hardcore ballet in this movie.
After years of struggles, veteran dancer Nina lands herself the part of a lifetime as The Swan Queen in Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) new version of Swan Lake. While those around her, including her needy mother (Barbara Hershey) feel that this achievement is well deserved and should fuel her confidence, Nina spirals downward into a world of dark fantasy and self-destruction.
While Nina represents the veteran entering her prime, an up-and-coming rival is portrayed by Mila Kunis as Lily, a woman with similar physical traits to Nina, but a much more “open” personality. She smokes, she’s openly sexual, and she has wings tattooed on her back, representing a new, more spirited kind of ballerina. Nina, much to her boss Thomas’ frustration, is wound too tight, is shy about sex, and could use some of Lily’s wildness.
There’s also Beth (Winona Ryder) the retiring ballerina being forced out of the company against her will. She’s a hard drinking, defeated woman harboring bitterness toward Thomas. Hershey’s character, who practically keeps her daughter prisoner in their apartment, was also a dancer whose career was halted with the birth of Nina.
As Nina’s opening night draws nearer, symptoms of a total nervous breakdown manifest themselves. She has hallucinations where paintings and mirror reflections take on a life of their own. She has visions of scratching herself compulsively, or ripping the skin from beneath her fingernails (a truly cringe-worthy moment). And, most notably, her rivalry with Lily transforms into a twisted friendship that may or may not be sexual in nature.
Aronofsky’s past works (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler) have often dealt with many strains of obsession, and Black Swan has its fair share. Career obsession, sexual obsession, body obsession, parental obsession … it’s a virtual cornucopia of obsessions, something that continues to be an Aronofsky specialty.
In addition to showing the taxing effects of Nina’s career choice on her mind, Aronofsky’s film is also very physical. While it’s never said, Nina obviously has an eating disorder, evidenced by more than a few trips to the bathroom for vomiting spells and her palpable fear of cake. It’s also in the little moments, such as when we see Nina’s feet stretch on the floor accompanied by an assortment of snaps and crackles. The film definitely conveys that the ballerina lifestyle is a physically demanding and painful one.
Portman might not have the perfected grace and polish of a lifetime dancer, but she acquits herself nicely in her dancing sequences, as does Kunis. While Aronofsky uses body doubles and digital effects to create the illusion that the actresses occupy all of their dance scenes, it is clear that they have done most of their own footwork, an impressive feat.
Like any actress, Portman will try to top her Black Swan performance in the coming years, and this is a tall order for sure. Let’s hope the pressure doesn’t get to her, resulting in fingernail mutilation and sex with Mila Kunis. Well, the Kunis part isn’t so bad, but I definitely fear for her fingernails if she makes another Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.