“I just want to be perfect.”
Ballet is the embodiment of beauty and perfection to ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). When she is finally selected by the ballet company’s director to star as the Swan Queen, the pressure and demands of the role create a fracture in Nina’s life. As opening night draws nearer, will Nina be able to maintain her grip on reality?
Also starring Vincent Cassel as Thomas the director, Mila Kunis as Lily, Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, Erica, and Winona Ryder as Beth, Black Swan is directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain).
Black Swan is unquestionably a shining moment in Natalie Portman’s career; a career that is literally peppered with outstanding performances in The Professional to V for Vendetta to Garden State and Goya’s Ghosts. Portman has shown a unique range – not only in the choice of her projects but also in her abilities. One moment she is a child assassin, the next, a helmet-wearing-compulsive-lying epileptic. But, it is in Nina Sayers that Portman’s fragility, vulnerability, and depth finally and undeniably shine through.
There is a moment of hesitation whenever a friend or colleague mentions Black Swan before I will engage in the conversation. It’s a safety mechanism, in a way, because I can go on and on about Black Swan and it is occasionally difficult to keep my enthusiasm in check.
This hesitation stems from the film’s electricity, from the excitement it illicits – not only in the storytelling but in its cinematography, in its performances. Watching the film, even after repeated viewings, I find my body responds in a very real way to the camera movements, the lighting, to its choreography.
In this sense, film can be like a drug, and Black Swan is definitely among my drugs of choice.
There is never any doubt, to me, that Black Swan is a horror film – that Nina’s mental fragility and desperate need to be perfect is manifested in bodily injury and the behaviors of self-harm like scratching and bulimia. Found too in the controlling, obsessive nature of Nina’s mother who refuses to allow Nina the space she needs to mature, both physically and mentally, the horror of Black Swan is very real. That Nina’s mental health is in flux, never to be entirely trusted by the viewer, only heightens the palpable sense that nothing is as it seems and that, for Nina, everything is at risk.
Because the film contains elements that nudge Black Swan into the body horror genre, it has a tendency to polarize its audience.
Scenes in which Nina can be seen harming herself or those in which she is forced to confront some new injury – either real or imagined – prove too graphic for some viewers. I would argue that they are among the most important moments in Black Swan. Even if you must partially hide your face behind your hands (I do it, too), you should attempt to endure them.
Make no mistake. These elements are intentionally entangled in Nina’s development to create similar, uncomfortable physical responses in you. In this way, Aronofsky draws you into the world of Black Swan and forces you to inhabit Nina’s mental illness.
The relationship between Nina and Lily (Kunis) is one part reality, two parts fantasy, but let’s face it; put together, the scenes in which Nina and Lily interact, whether real or imagined, are as scaldingly hot as one could hope for between two of Hollywood’s most attractive actresses.
Yes, I’m saying Nina imagines Lily in the taxi with her. Yes, I’m saying that Nina imagines Lily in the apartment, rooting her on while she finally tells off her domineering mother. Yes, I’m saying that Nina imagines Lily in bed with her. But, having said that, do you care? No. I didn’t think so. What matters is that, for Nina, the attraction, desire, and physical relationship is tangible. In those moments with Lily, Nina is finally able to let go of the princess and say hello to the Black Swan.
And yes, it’s hot.
I love that Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey co-star in Black Swan; their performances elevating, rather than merely decorating, the film.
Ryder, who stars as Beth/The Dying Swan, is onscreen for but a few minutes of Black Swan, but her performance is utterly indelible, reminding us of what we missed when the actress was relatively absent from film in the early 2000’s.
And Hershey, with her at once loving and yet smothering maternal ideal terrifies us; giving Nina a back story so towering it can only be truly understood as Nina herself stands atop it, surveying all that surrounds her, before falling to her death.
Black Swan was honored with five Academy Award nominations (Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture), being described by Roger Ebert as having “a beauty” that you shouldn’t take “too much time trying to figure out.”
Behind the Scenes – Natalie Portman’s training (the song used is from Suspiria):
Natalie Portman receiving her Academy Award for Best Actress in Black Swan:
Black Swan Dance Double Controversy:
Official site: Black Swan
Wiki facts: Black Swan
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Related: LAMB scores for Black Swan