Back in January, I was that twenty-something woman seeing Black Swan alone. I never carry a purse, that day I had on a superhero t-shirt and my grey converse shoes. The eight other people in the theater, all women, may have made some assumptions, especially if they knew some of the gory details of the plot already. Two rows ahead of me were four women approaching their golden years. Two of them giggled to each other at Nina’s first attempt to…follow her director’s advice. Later, during Nina’s more intense bedroom experience, those four silhouettes didn’t dare move a muscle. After the credits had cut off and the lights had turned on, one of them seemed startled, noticing me as I was putting on my jacket. I guess I can be a movie theater ninja. Politely acknowledging, we asked each other’s opinions on the film. All five of us agreed that it was daring, creepy, beautiful and that Natalie Portman was going to win an Oscar.
Nina (Portman) is a young, talented ballerina in a New York dance company who has just been selected for the lead in Swan Lake. It’s the role of a lifetime and with the honor comes the pressure to embody both innocence and sensuality.
Her director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), knows the Black Swan half of the ballet will be a challenge for Nina, she is already a perfect fit for the White Swan. From his unprofessional advances he senses a dark side deep within that Nina must channel to effectively dance the Black Swan. Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), is an ex ballerina who treats her grown daughter like a child. There is a pressure in her home life for Nina to preserve her innocent, childlike self. Her room (with no lock) looks like it was decorated by a nanny for an eight year old. We can sense that Nina fears her mother and hates the rule she poses over her life, yet she remains powerless.
When Nina believes that a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), is trying to steal her role, the pressure starts to drive Nina mad. Her mind manifests disturbing images and we are not always sure what is real and what is only in Nina’s mind. The rivalry turns into a twisted friendship that transforms Nina and helps her find her inner Black Swan.
Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances we have seen from any actor in years. First off, there’s the physical stress of ballet, which she does with natural poise and beautiful grace. Then there’s the meek and shy side of Nina that is being pulled between seeking her mother’s approval and being a perfect ballet dancer. Portman portrays these characteristics of Nina masterfully. Those weak smiles, the shy eyes, the way she looks so fragile says more than cheap dialogue ever could. Finally there is the transformation, the dark side that Nina lets free. To bring such a great contrast of character within the same character is not easily done, but Portman makes it feel like a natural unleashing without losing anything distinctly Nina within the performance.
When recommending Black Swan to others, I realize that some more conservative viewers have a comfort threshold about sexuality that this film ventures far beyond. Thing is, while these scenes are quite daring, they are also essential fuel in making this film a startling, creepy psychological thriller. This is not your typical Hollywood fantasy for teenage boys, but a much darker idea deeply rooted in feminism and the pressures young women can face. The issues here are not too far fetched, our society loves to build young women up, give them the unreasonable expectation to be both pure and passionate, then watch them crash and burn the under pressure.
I could gush for hours about Black Swan. The movie full of ballet, beauty, blood, madness all rolled into strong feminist ideas was amazing. It’s the only film in my adult life that made me instinctively cover my eyes at a few moments. It gave me that extremely creepy feeling of paranoia that I only get after watching Psycho alone in the dark. I checked the trunk of my car before I left the theater parking lot, came home and poured myself a strong drink. I love it when a movie does these things to me.
“I just want to be perfect.”
If The Academy is looking to award the most daring and artful film, the Oscar for Best Picture will go to Black Swan.