Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her career as Nina, a ballerina who pirouettes along the bounds of sanity in her effort to achieve dancing perfection. The film is a story of sexual awakening and unilateral thinking, of ambition so overwhelming that it borders on psychotic. It is a tale that is apparently not as different as you would think from the real lives of world-class ballerinas.
Miss Portman has always been able to cry, convincingly, without great effort. On this stage, in these settings, this ability is used as a weapon, sharp and poignant. In a movie seeped in brutal imagery, her crying evinces some touching, vitally real moments. Tears of sadness, tears of happiness, tears of confusion. Not the tears of a weepy child, but rather of a tormented individual whose every waking moment is a balancing act poised to please other people.
Nina, always a technically proficient but uninspiring ballerina, has been chosen to be the Swan Queen, the leading role in a new performance of Swan Lake. We learn early on that Nina’s mother, played darkly and wonderfully by Barbara Hershey, also used to be a ballerina. As so often happens, her dreams of greatness were lost when real life interfered; in her case, it was when Nina was conceived. So instead, she lives vicariously through Nina; when Nina is chosen as Swan Queen, her mother is as excited as she is, and she buys an enormous cake in celebration. It is here that we first witness an underlying dark thread in Nina’s life. Nina, calorie conscious as any dancer would be, refuses a large piece of cake. Her mother grows viciously petulant and threatens to throw away the entire cake. Nina’s refusal is a refusal of her mother’s vicarious dream: if she had been named Swan Queen, she would have wanted a large piece of cake.
Despite her appointment to the coveted role, all is not roses for Nina. The ballet’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is unsure of his choice. He is satisfied with Nina’s performance as the White Swan, but he has yet to see her demonstrate the sexuality needed to play the evil twin, the Black Swan. Nina’s life is cold and calculated. She lives for ballet and to please her mother, who dominates her at home. Nina does not know love, or sex, or any form of “letting loose”. And then appears Lily.
(Spoiler Alert: Readers who have not yet seen the movie may want to skip down to the paragraph that begins, “The ballet at the center of it all...”)
Lily, played competently and playfully by Mila Kunis, is everything that Nina is not. She is easy going, friendly, and natural in her dancing, albeit with less than perfect technique. Lily is two different people to Nina. She is the wild child newcomer to her ballet troupe, and then she is the impish temptress of Nina’s imagination. There is much uncertainty throughout the film as to which Lily we are seeing in any given scene. What we do figure out soon enough is that Lily is the black swan to Nina’s real life white swan; the free and sexual partier to Nina’s life of solitude and study. Nina’s longing to please Lily, to be like her, to be intimate with her, are reflections of her unhealthy dreams of perfection. If she can master the Black Swan, her Swan Queen will be perfect.
There are many scenes of wince-inducing physical pain that fine tune the edge of the sharp tension already cutting through the drama. Dancer’s feet, in general, are decimated by the constant strain of standing on the toes for long periods of time. We see Nina’s red and swollen toes, hear her joints crack, and watch as a masseuse unjams her ankles with a tug and a pop. As a further metaphor for the agonizing effort of her dancing, Nina also experiences a strange rash on her back, which bleeds unexpectedly. This ailment seems to spread to her fingers, which bleed and peel and are further battered by her domineering mother who insists on clipping her daughter’s nails herself, using scissors. The scene in which the mother grabs that small pair of scissors and snips harshly at Nina’s nails is more horrifying than most horror movies can induce in two hours. With every frustrated “snip”, our fingers curl in chilling nervous response.
Perhaps the most gossiped about event in the film involves the sex scene between Nina and Lily. Yet Nina’s sexuality is an issue that develops throughout the entire film, and besides her lesbian encounter, it includes her relationship to Thomas and her understanding of herself. Nina needs to define what sex is for her; is it a ticket, used to obtain (and keep) the lead role? Is it a necessary part of her training, the tool that allows her to perfect a dance? Is she attracted to men, or women? Or both?
The ballet at the center of it all, Swan Lake, was composed by Peter Tchaikovsky, a gay man who lived in late 19th century Russia. Biographers see Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality as one of his life’s greatest challenges. For many years in his youth, Tchaikovsky tried to be straight. It was what was expected of him, and being gay was even less accepted than it is now. Later in life he “discovered” his homosexuality, and from all indications had gay lovers in his lifetime. Yet he never seemed to be completely at peace with it. I think it is certainly no mistake that the filmmakers chose this theme of sexual disorientation for Nina, the Swan Queen of Swan Lake.
Director Darren Aronofsky has made what is very likely the best film of his career, and certainly since Requiem for a Dream. He loves the use of abstract and hallucinogenic visuals punctuated by scenes of piercing music and machine gun editing. His main characters are harrowed, isolated people at the ends of desperation, lending to his visual preferences. It is a style that has worked well (as in Requiem) and not as well (The Fountain). In Black Swan, he may have mastered it. At the least he has a firm grip on it, and the intimate character study that results is one of the best movies of the year.