Generally, films about dance companies only go in one direction, the interpersonal squabbling and politicized desperation of the company members vying for one of the principal performer spots. In his new film, director Natalie Portman has found a thrilling monkey wrench to throw into the standard dynamic: What if the principal dancer loses her mind in the course of preparing for the role?
The dancer in question is the ravishing Nina (Natalie Portman, in a commanding performance), long a dancer with the New York Ballet, she prepares for the upcoming season with the idea that she can win the coveted spot soon to be vacated by the aging Beth (Winona Ryder) and be chosen as the Swan Queen for the company’s new, enervating production of Swan Lake. The problem is, as dictated by Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the demanding director of the company, Nina is still too virginal and worried about mastery of the movements to embody fully the wild, reckless Black Swan. Nina, who lives with a creepily doting mother (Barbara Hershey) who still dresses and undresses her as if she were a schoolgirl, starts to crack under the pressure of being broken down by Thomas, seeing fleeting visages of herself in an increasing abundance of potent hallucinations. It doesn’t help her fragile psyche that she feels she’s being additionally undermined by a new dancer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas seems to favor.
As the film progresses, and Nina’s hallucinatory experience forms more and more of the narrative, Aronofsky pushes the and pulls us from one reality after another. The effect is not unlike that of some of his best work (Requiem for a Dream), creating alternate realities that force his characters out of any kind of comfort zone. Indeed, there are certainly other echoes from his acclaimed previous film, The Wrestler. If that film were a kind of analogy for the working stiff, driving his health into the ground to best accomplish the only thing he feels he’s good at; this film becomes a similar kind of set piece about the pain, suffering and sacrifice that is demanded for an artist to achieve truly transcendent work.
Remarkably, both Portman and Kunis make for believable professional dancers. In a bit of poetic synergy, Portman, in particular, seems as though she’s been pushed by Aronofsky, a notoriously demanding director, far past her usual comfort zone and the result is nothing less than magical. The film might ultimately be slighter than some of Aronofsky’s best work (the many, many mirror/glass reflections and black and white motifs are certainly more than a tad overplayed for one thing), but it still holds a transfixing amount of power.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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