BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
They say if things are going well at the job, you can stand friction at home, and if things are good at home you can stand friction at the job. But if there is stress at both work and home, well, that’s when people crack. In Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Black Swan, Nina Sayers, the Swan Queen at the center of a new production of the ballet Swan Lake, finds that neither work nor home is a sanctuary. As the stress builds, Aronfsky’s uses every trick to put you into Nina’s mind and body and like Catherine Deneuve’s delusional damsel in Roman Polanski’s classic Repulsion, the sadistic fun is seeing this vulnerable beauty lose grip on her sanity.
Some of the most acclaimed performances in modern film are those where the actors have worked to physically transform their very bodies, like DeNiro in Raging Bull and Christian Bales in, well lots of roles (including his crack addict he plays in the new film, The Fighter). Add Natalie Portman to those who have gone to extreme macho lengths to transform their very bodies into character as Portman lithe frame makes her highly believable as a top tier New York ballerina. She has not only trained herself to be able to carry out ballet technique but she uses her body to dance the role in character. This feat is further impressive since the production of Swan Lake in the film calls for her to play not just the innocent victimized White Swan but her shadow character as well, the cruel seductress Black Swan. Her Balanchine-like choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel, miles away from the vicious gangster he recently played in Mesrine) expresses doubt that the fragile perfectionist Nina can find the sexually aggressive Black Swan within her and much of the film’s action shows her struggling to assert herself, both on stage and in her stunted relationships.
At rehearsals she has Lily to worry about (Mila Kunis), an uninhibited dancer who, with seeming effortlessness, can channel the Black Swan’s dangerousness yet the most treacherous character in Nina’s life may be the mother with which she shares her cramped apartment. The same way Winona Ryder shows up as a over-the-hill dancer, Barbara Hershey as the mother represents a foreboding image of Nina’s potential future. Her mother was a dancer who never rose to the top and now she works diligently on grotesque self-portraits she paints in her bedroom. The performance is made even creepier by the actress Hershey’s scalpel-enhanced face, which has left the once natural beauty with a leer that resembles Jack Nicholson’s turn as The Joker, giving the character a visceral impact as a woman who has taken her perfectionism too far. The Mother is a suffocating nightmare, self-pitying, critical and over-involved in her daughters life; she’s even unexpectedly present when Nina tries to get in touch with her character by touching herself.
Aronfsky is back to using cinematographer Matthew Libatique (of Requiem For a Dream and Pi) to give you the sense you’re inside of Nina body as she dances and pushes her body and mind beyond the point of comfort. His camera often dances with her, with the fleeting images she sees while spinning signaling the fear and doubt within her. Libatique’s work captures the beauty and the nightmare with a wonderful clarity, the images growing more claustrophobic and surreal as the tension mounts.
Nina is accused of being too controlled, a charge of which one might sight Aronofsky himself. I miss the new looseness that he showed in his previous film, The Wrestler. The films have fascinating parallels, both about athletes endangering themselves in pursuit of that idealized moment in the spotlight. But if pursuing ballet calls for more discipline than pro wrestling, perhaps the choice of making Black Swan a more tightly wound narrative is justified.
Despite its fine art setting, Black Swan rushes to its climax with a sense of inevitability that is similar to a slasher film, and if Nina is a tortured soul, Aronfsky is not afraid to torture the viewer a bit as well. It’s tempting to say its dark finale makes the film too morose to be a crowd-pleaser but then again, the swan perishes at the end of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, and that has seemed to please audiences for over a hundred years now.