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Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a gripping drama set in New York about a young talented ballerina who’s trying to get the principal role in the next production. While this just screams dancing and chick flick, it’s anything but that. It is a story about mind over body or body over mind. So yes, Aronofsky could have cast a prima ballerina, but by choosing Natalie Portman for his leading role, he takes the film away from becoming just another dance movie to a portrayal of the grotesque and embarrassingly real human psychology.
Black Swan follows the story of Nina Sayers, a sweet and innocent young ballerina, who wants the role of Swan Queen in artistic director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) production of Swan Lake. Swan Lake is about a girl trapped in the body of a white swan, who can only break free by finding true love. However, before her prince can declare his love to her, the evil black swan traps and seduces him. The white swan can now only find freedom in death. Leroy wants his swans to be danced by the same ballerina. While Nina is the perfect white swan, she lacks the self-confidence needed to let herself go, be wild and seductive. Although her first audition isn’t ‘perfect’, she ends of getting the part despite rejecting Leroy’s sexual advances or because of it.
Her immediate competition is fellow dancer, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), who is better suited to play the Black Swan, because of her confident and sensual nature. Leroy makes this very clear, by continuously reminding Nina that Lily is wild and seductive and humiliating Nina further by getting her male partner to confirm that he wouldn’t have sex with her. From here on out, Nina gets more and more paranoid, hallucinating to a point where it’s difficult to say whether something is actually happening or not. One great example is her bleeding. In numerous scenes, Nina finds her fingers bleeding or her back and making it even worse by pulling off her own skin.
Nina’s mental transformation becomes particularly apparent through her interaction with her possessive mother Erica (played by Barbara Hershey). At the beginning of the movie, Nina was still the little girl, wearing pink underwear, with soft toys in her pink room and her mother, who was a struggling ballerina herself, undressing her and entering her room whenever she wanted to. One of the scenes shows Nina on the brink of an orgasm when she discovers her mother sleeping in the armchair next to her. However, Nina changes and starts yelling at her mother, talking back and running out on her when she humiliates her in front of Lily.
Although Nina faces multiple obstacles, her biggest enemy is still her own body. Natalia Portman brilliantly portrays the journey Nina goes on from the innocent naïve ballerina to utter madness in her best performance to date. Portman’s performance is strong both physically and mentally, showing us everything from eating disorders to her obsessive need to be perfect, even stealing things from forcibly retired ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder) “I just wanted to be perfect”. Portman is outstanding at showing Nina’s fragile side as well as her increasingly tormented persona that reaches a horrific crescendo in the final scene.
Aronofsky’s use of narrative and handheld cameras are outstanding pieces of work, allowing the viewer to become part of Nina’s journey, including her lunacy. Although some might say he went too far with some of the film’s more grotesque moments such as having her legs change into swan’s legs or pulling out feathers from under her skin, it’s exactly what hallucinations and paranoia are like to the people who experience it – something that is mostly far from rational.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan is my favourite Oscar contender this year. Her performance is real and strong and she was perfectly cast alongside Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey. There are many other scenes in this movie that should be discussed like the bar scene leading Nina to have sex with Lily or even more so the final scene and various different elements that Aronofsky included that have made the film what it is today like the costumes or his use of music and light, but it would take another 2 pages to go through it all. Black Swan is a thorough piece of work, grotesque and although close to ridiculous at times, utterly brilliant.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey, Sebastian Stan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (‘The Wrestler’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘Requiem for a Dream’, ‘Pi’)
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz