I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that few among the most serious of cinephiles are huge fans of ballet. More important than the truth of this statement (which I'm not really committed to) is the fact that it seems to be true. The arts in question are not even particularly relevant. What is important is that, whether we're talking opera, oil painting, or concert pianists, moving to the furthest depths of any particular vehicle of expression generally precludes a true fascination with another.
Even more interesting is the fact that, whether artist or connoisseur, if you get people with the experience of thousands of productions, films, recitals, paintings, or anything else, when they talk about the greatest examples of the medium, they speak as though they are referring to the same thing. At least, with regard to the experience they have.
That idea, though it probably won't manage frequent mention, is what Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is about more than anything else. A riveting, if slow-moving, psychological autopsy it may be, but what it is is only loosely related to what it's about.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer on the rise. Her company's new season is opening with a spin on Swan Lake, and when director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides that it's time to put star Beth MacIntyre () out to pasture, he is hopeful that Nina will be his new star. The snag in the theory is that while Nina is perfect for the role of the elegant, graceful, and innocent White Swan, she comes up a bit short in terms of the Black Swan's sensual, wily nature. Her perfection and precision keep her from embodying the passion, and Thomas is looking to have both roles played by the same dancer.
Thomas assures Nina that if it were only the White Swan, he would give Nina the role without hesitation, but she needs to learn to let go, and deliver the fire that comes from more than just performing the moves accurately. When newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) shows up, and is as perfectly Black Swan as Nina is White, the tension and pressure to excel are kicked up to new levels, and it sends Nina and her whole world spinning out of control.
Pressures, real and imagined, external and self-imposed, begin to unravel what little sense of self Nina has managed to weave together while growing up with an overzealous, ex-dancer mother in a life utterly consumed by the focus on her art. The curious microcosm that is her reality begins to bend and shift with the strain for perfection, and her role, as swan and human, becomes confused, unlivable, and unattainable.
Whatever pros and cons may come out of this unnerving, yet difficult to describe, thriller-esque mind game, I think it must be appreciated and analyzed as Aronofsky's entity. Like a new wave, slightly surreal-focused Robert Altman, Aronofsky infuses his films to the extent that everything is his, and you could spot a film as his in minutes with no real effort. From conversations to compositions, he feels like a student of Altman's school, and that includes the idea that often what is said loudest is that which is not said at all.
Portman gives a stunning, almost shockingly good performance, delivering on the hopes that were first formed in The Professional, and have only been hinted at to varying degrees since. Solid as she has been in certain roles, much of her work has been White Swan effort in a Black Swan world. The many scenes in which she says nothing, or extremely little, tell the tale of an actress who has made great strides in her craft.
Kunis, though perhaps slightly miscast, also comes through in ways difficult to predict based on our previous experiences with her. Though less interesting and intense, her role as pseudo-foil has to deliver a complex dance of emotions and lack thereof (which can be more difficult), and she manages it all rather well.
You can add in the writing, Cassel's fine performance, Ryder's less than wonderful effort, and a host of other points, but I think you still end up with an example of Aronofsky working what he has available to him. I hate to compare actual people to the tools of other artists, but that's how it feels. Much like some of his other works, Requiem for a Dream springs to mind, or something like Gosford Park, there is so much of him at play in every moment that, if nothing else, it makes one irritated at a great many other directors.q
Black Swan is an odd, mysterious, and fantastical story about a strange (through little fault of her own) girl in circumstances difficult for outsiders to not only appreciate, but understand at all. It is a film that unnerves as it unmasks, and spins its heroine's psyche beyond a reality/fantasy distinction, all the while whittling away at the divide between text and sub-text. It pulls you in with the tragically difficult simplicities of a well-timed look, or the exceedingly rare focus on a person, not so they can deliver a line, or "act," but only so that you are forced to look at them.
There are those moments in life. When years of work come together, and hundreds of performances finally reveal another kind of perfection. You may imagine that I aim to intimate that this is one of those times, just as, frankly, you may see the end of this film coming, but that is too simplistic an examination. Black Swan is not about being that thing, but feeling that feeling, all its costs included