If you’ve heard about the movie Black Swan but you haven’t read an in-depth review of it, it’s possible you might think something like this:
“They say it stars Natalie Portman as a ballerina. Hmmm… two hours watching a pretty woman prance around in a tutu? Sounds like some nice eye candy there… I suppose the plot will be some sort of “Lifetime” movie with a bigger budget… Maybe it’s basically a retread of “A Star Is Born”… Could be a serious snooze-fest…”
If that’s anywhere near your current thinking about Black Swan, hear me well: we’re in much deeper waters on this expedition. Nothing in the previous paragraph accurately describes this film, except that it does star Natalie Portman as a ballerina.
Let me begin with my summation: Black Swan is a wonderful, harrowing, stunning film. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste. If your taste runs to linear storytelling and/or smooches at sunset by movie’s end, you might do well do steer clear of this one. But if you’re willing to ride a darkened rollercoaster from which the tracks may suddenly drop away, then climb aboard.
The first clue that we’re on a different sort of ride comes in the heavy use early on of hand-held cameras following closely behind Nina (Portman). Particularly on the big screen, this can be a jarring, vertigo-inducing technique, though I think most people will quickly adjust to it. The effect is to keep us close to Nina’s mind, which, it turns out, is often an unsettling place to be. But this is her story so that’s where we need to be.
I will not go into exhaustive detail about the plot, except to say that it is about a young ballerina who appears to have gotten the greatest break of her career – a chance to play the lead in a big-time New York production of Swan Lake. The stakes become clear soon enough – can Nina give her director what he needs from her in performance, or will she be replaced by another hungry young talent, who may not be Nina’s peer as a technical dancer, but who far outstrips her ability to perform with passion? And can Nina do this without losing her sanity or her soul? Nina’s chief stumbling blocks are her complicated relationship with her ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey) and her pervasive insecurities and neuroses, which threaten to blossom into deadly psychoses at every turn.
This is the ride that you, as a moviegoer, have to agree to embark upon. Nina is in almost every frame of the movie, and as the story hurtles towards its climax, you must accept the fact that no one is manning the brake. Multiple realities begin to crash into one another – Nina’s fears crash into Nina’s growing madness, which crashes into other people – who may or may not be real themselves. At some point, the viewer realizes that there is little or no objective reality point of view here – the entire story is being told from Nina’s subjective point of view and the lens of her reality. The movie ends as we the moviegoers, riding the crest of Nina’s wave, crash into our own perceptions of an objective reality, though where one reality ends and the next begins may be debated long after the screen has gone dark.
I’ve noticed that, in general, when people write about Natalie Portman, it is common for them to refer to her being very pretty. I did so myself at the beginning of this essay. I bring that up because it is interesting to note that Portman spends very little time looking pretty in this movie, unless you find beauty in scratches, broken toes, and bleeding fingers. If you didn’t already know it, the day-to-day life of a professional ballet dancer is one of discipline, pain, and damn little glamour before Opening Night, and Black Swan pulls no punches in its close-up depiction of this life. But Portman’s performance here will surely stand as one of the greatest of her career, even if she spends the next half century making movies. Yes, she portrays someone who is descending (or maybe ascending) into madness, but she doesn’t necessarily do it with exhausting displays of acting pyrotechnics. She gives us someone more real than that – a serious, driven individual who may not be mentally or emotionally strong enough to survive the maelstrom into which she must hurl herself.
To the potential patron of this film, I must say that if you are sucked into its vortex as thoroughly as I was, you will spend the last 20 minutes of it clutching yourself, barely able to breathe. It’s been a while since a movie made me feel that way. It’s a tribute to the power of this film, though in fairness, it also relates to my own background as a performer. I am no stranger to the pursuit of theatrical perfection that drives Nina, and if her director is a manipulative swine at times… well, he is surely in the same league as a few directors I’ve had to deal with.
In all fairness, I must report on a problem area in this film – except that I’m not 100% certain that it really is a problem. I will sum up: The essential arc of this story is very powerful, and it resonates with the sort of terrible inevitability and slashing brush strokes often found in classical opera and – dare I say – ballet. The tricky part is that this is still a story set in contemporary and recognizable New York City, and many aspects of that world are portrayed in a fairly naturalistic manner. So there is a sort of tension between the soaring, classical drama of Nina’s life and madness versus the ordinary, recognizable world inhabited by her and many of the other characters. Still, I remind myself that this heightened, distorted reality is the very reason for this movie’s existence; these huge, outsized gears are the very mechanism that makes this movie so compelling and so memorable. So if you happen to see Black Swan yourself, I’d be curious to hear your point of view on it.