Black Swan – Almost Perfect
This article is published on UK’s The Spectator website.
Black Swan (2010) is about perfection – what it looks like, what it feels like, and what it consumes.
We meet Nina (Natalie Portman) as she starts her day, fresh-faced and frail. Her collarbones strain against chest as she digs into half a grapefruit with a determined resolution and smiles ‘Yum.’ With that first bite she establishes a tangible, uncomfortable longing that pervades the rest of the film. It is the first day of the new season, and Nina is a ballerina who is desperate to be chosen. As she hugs her mother (Barbara Hershey) goodbye, Nina’s big brown eyes exude a hope that is simultaneously endearing and tragic.
From there, the story reels relentlessly into the world of ballet and its stages. Every room holds an audition. Every pirouette matters. Every bite counts. But no one knows exactly how it all adds up. The system rests on one person – a man – the artistic director of the company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who is capable of plucking a young, plain duckling from mundanity and making her into the swan queen. This is a cruel fairytale, one in which the prince kisses not so tenderly, the stepmother may be nicer than your real mother, and the glass slipper fits snugly, but cuts deep.
Darren Aronofsky has a distinct taste for the dark and the beautiful, and here they compound seamlessly into the White Swan and the Black Swan through the body of a versatile acting powerhouse. Portman suffers through a physically and emotionally exhausting transformation and delivers: her body shockingly thin, her arms svelte, her skin glistening with sweat, she cracks her toes and we hear their strains. When she spins, her tightly pulled-back hair stretches the skin on her face to a translucent ivory-grey that make her look partly ghost and partly angel. It is an eerie combination that is utterly striking.
It is also sickening: the emaciated bodies; the desperate girls; the deprived women; the lost minds; the perfection built drop by drop from sweat, blood, and tears. The price is never unclear and never discussed. Once you have devoted your body to a singular cause, what’s an additional bargain of the flesh to add to the scale? The balance is already tipped in favor of winning – losing is not an option. Losing is death.
Black Swan is, above all, a feast for the senses. Visually provocative, it is full of juxtapositions, parallels, and plain old scares. Aronofsky said this is not an easy film to watch, and of course he didn’t intend it to be. It is startling, melodramatic and, at times, downright awkward and sad. It is, however, also thrilling, revealing, and enamoring. From Pi to Requiem to a Dream to The Wrestler, a common theme that seems to thread through Aronofsky’s work is human (and in particular bodily) suffering. An Aronofsky film is not going to evoke an Ozu-like inner transcendence by quietly holding a static shot for ten minutes, and if that is what you’re looking for, you bought the wrong ticket. However, what the director does so well is to provoke a tactile reaction from the audience – through dazzle, disorientation, and reprieves in between those brutal blows that, when done correctly, perfectly realize a clear, transcendent moment. Black Swan is all of those things, and though it stumbles slightly along the way, blow by blow it prods, pulls, and provokes our senses to a pitch-perfect ending that, in true Aronofsky fashion, transcends.
Amongst a strong cast of supporting performances is Barbara Hershey’s solid turn. She teeters finely on that blurry line between loving mother and over-possessive has-been that even the air turns a degree chillier in her presence. Winona Ryder puts in a brief and brave appearance that seems all too short and somewhat abrupt. And it must be noted that if Portman provides the dish of drama, Kunis is the sauce that spices it into pure genre pleasure. Boasting matching doll-like brown eyes and dark hair, what lacks in dance mastery she makes up for with ingenuity and sexy flair. Watching an interview, I’m surprised at how comfortable Kunis seems to be in spirit with her character, Lily: naturally uninhibited, funny, with an easy self-awareness. She sparkles here, but the role doesn’t provide enough range for her to truly shine. I suspect we have yet to see the full allure of Mila Kunis.
As enjoyable as Black Swan is, there are moments that jar. Vincent Cassel is a distinct force in every role, and here proves no exception. He pulls off the bad guy that you love-to-hate and hate-to-love as well as he does in the Ocean’s series, but doesn’t quite sink in deep enough as the obsessive control-freak ballet director to provide true relish. The character Thomas oozes sex appeal, but his moments with Nina are often loaded and almost always brief. Just as the power play is getting interesting… the scene moves on. Sometimes the tease works; other times it is just plain disappointing. Aronofsky punctuates the narrative with hallucinations, perverse encounters, and bodily injury that seep into each other with such menace, there’s nowhere to go but to squirm, deeply, into one’s seat. The treatment works overall, though some blows remain harder to take than others, and not always in the memorable, pleasuring fashion as intended. But there you will be: squirming, watching, and undeniably interested in the next act, which is more than what can be said about most of life’s other shows.
Black Swan is a twisted fantasy set in a real world, where real, desperate, determined young women attempt to attain greatness through a fabled tale. They punish their own bodies, devour their own flesh, ignore their needs, and numb their pain. Men use them, and the young women use them back, as best as they know how. The playing field is never level, but those are the rules of the game they agreed to play. For all of them, dancing is life in Technicolor – brilliant, glorious, perfect. For most of them, they will forever skirt on the edge of the spotlight, struggling to reach that perfected state, taste that glory, and touch that brilliance. For some of them, they will eventually have everything that they have always dreamed of, and transform from plain ducklings into beautiful swans. However, as the beautiful swans spread their wings for flight, they may realize that too many feathers have already been traded, and that the bleeding has rendered them weak. But there is no place for weakness at the top, perched on the edge of the cliff of glory: it is a long way down, and there is no way to go but out into the perfect, unknown abyss.