Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, one can’t help but notice the similarities to The Wrestler, his 2008 film that resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke. Both films focus on an individual in an art form that demands extraordinary physical conditioning and abuse.
One is at the low end of this spectrum, the other the high. Both are about the destruction of an individual as they strain to surpass their destiny. Rourke’s character wears his ravaged heart in his face. Natalie Portman, as Nina in Black Swan, wears her untouched heart in hers.
Black Swan is propelled forward by the incredible dynamic of Aronofsky’s cinematic technique. In montages, images smash up against each other and seem almost to wrestle with one another. He also understands that, though film is a visual medium, we hear it first; and what we hear goes deeper into our heart than what we see. So he uses sound effects the same way he uses images: sharply and tumultuously, often contrasting the image to the sound.
Portman is astonishing to look at. Physically, she is already an icon — you get the feeling that she has literally forced herself into the body of the prima ballerina. But she has a little girl’s voice, a dependent voice, frightened of being alone, of not being liked; the voice of a girl who has only gone outdoors in order to get to the dance studio and to rush home again when rehearsal is done. She has never screamed at the moon or denied authority or felt truly ecstatic, except when en pointe through the music and at the maestro’s behest.
To succeed at ballet you must submit yourself to a brutal physical and psychological regimen, neuter your womanhood, surrender to the authority of men and then, after all that, you are asked to abandon yourself, to ‘lose yourself’. Or so says artistic director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel.
Cassel is, as I have said before, the most exciting actor working in film today. He is more physically present, more alive, and more unpredictable than anyone. He is beautiful to watch here, and is as keen, light and fluid as Astaire. His is a great character waiting just off stage. But Aronofsky must return to Nina, the White Swan. And so because the film director wants to play with her, the artistic director does not get to play as much as we might like.
And boy does Aronofsky play with Nina. First he gives her a mother who is a master of manipulation, brilliantly played by Barbara Hershey. ( Hershey is almost unrecognizable under what I suppose are several surgeries and copious quantities of collagen, and watching emotions fight their way to the surface of that once young and beautiful face is a tutorial in the repression of the self in service to commerce.) Then he drives Nina slowly mad with an evil twin doppelganger, imagined sexual encounters, considerable spillage of blood and, eventually, with a room out of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
It will be said by some that Black Swan is a bit overwrought. It is, but brilliantly so. It is a horror movie. The monster is the repressed soul and the cost of beauty. The damsel in distress is Nina and there will be no heroes coming to the rescue. There is only death.
And Mila Kunis is the mystery. She is the fun one. She is Nina’s black swan. She is openly sexual, a good dancer, the most human of all the characters, and the fantasy partner for pure and virginal Nina. And perhaps for all of us.