Black Swan – A Role To Die For
By Sumaya Samarasinghe
A fictional New York Ballet Company is preparing for a brand new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); the ballet director is looking for a fresh lead to play the challenging double role of both the Black and White Swans.
The audition scene is a typical one where the young hopefuls are doing their pliés with their heads high up while the master slowly gazes at them and picks those who will compete for the part. Among them is Lily ( Mila Kunis) a tattooed, free spirited and fun loving ballerina and Nina Sayers ( Nathalie Portman) an introverted perfectionist who lives with her terribly possessive and creepy mother Erica ( Barbara Hershey) a failed dancer herself.
Hershey would make some of the bravest filmgoers shiver. Dressed in black with her hair scrapped back, she micro manages the life of her daughter to an extreme, calling her incessantly, watching her diet and practically putting her to bed every night. Needless to say, Nina has no friends and walks around with her eyes stuck to the floor while always seeming to be on the brink of tears. Her lips tremble and she has regular panic attacks; the director Darren Aronofsky makes it very obvious that his heroin is a brilliant dancer totally lacking self confidence, he drills it in so much, that it becomes a little annoying. To be quite honest, that was probably the most irritating part of Black Swan, Portman’s quivering mouth and anxious little face until of course she begins to develop clear psychotic symptoms which make her personality dangerous and way more confident and interesting.
One day after a failed one to one audition with Thomas, Nina decides to go and ask him for the role. He tells her that she has the talent to succeed but is too frigid and not passionate enough to play the seductive Black Swan. When he attempts to kiss her, she bites him which surprises so much that he casts her in the lead role the next day itself.
An unfortunate consequence of the film is that it will make you think twice before sending your child for serious ballet classes as all the clichés linked to the profession are present: dancers suffer from bulimia (Nina sticks her fingers down her throat and vomits her food out), they are ultra competitive and can be very nasty, their careers are finished at a young age; Winona Ryder plays Beth MacIntyre who is ‘retired’ and obviously takes it rather harshly while most choreographers are waiting to take advantage of all the ambitious ballerinas!
And Black Swan shows it all, the bloodied toes and aching muscles of bodies having been put through strenuous and harsh training from a very young age; actually bodies being put through hell! Only Lily’s character seems to be enjoying life, sometimes to a dangerous extreme. The look on Nina face when she watches Lily bite through a juicy hamburger regardless of the extra calories is priceless. But despite all the pressure both mental and physical, ballet remains the dream of many because it is hard to compete with the beauty of a graceful ballerina twirling on her tips and dancing as lightly as a feather.
Darren Aronofsky’s filming of the ballet scenes is gorgeous and make up for the slightly confusing and often tense sequences which sometimes border on horror. The very moment Nina gets the role, her fragile mental balance is put at risk and a nasty double begins to slowly appear more and more often. This double has sex in bars, takes drugs, self mutilates ( those scenes are particularly hard to watch), stands up to her mother and as Thomas says : “Lives a little”. But all the characters seem to have a fair amount of duality in them. Lily is genuinely friendly, but she is also a bad influence on Nina and seems to have a hidden agenda to take over the lead in the ballet. The horrible over ambitious mother ends up caring more for her daughter’s well being than anything else and Thomas who looked like an indecent seducer who could have taken advantage of Nina is just interested in a perfect end product.
The hallucination scenes are rather chilling especially when rashes and abrasions appear on Portman’s back where wings could come out. She picks her fingers until they bleed and when her sense of reality becomes less defined and she is committing the most horrendous actions in her lovely tutus, Portman truly glows! Critics have been very positive of her performance saying that she even pulled off the dancing scenes rather well having done ballet as a child and practised for this part for six months straight. I would partially agree only on this because somehow, perhaps, from the way she moved and from her arm movements, Portman’s lack of ballet experience showed. But one must applaud her dedication and an Oscar nomination will probably be her reward. Black Swan can be watched by anyone ( preferably a mature public) even those who have no inclination to go to the ballet or listen to classical music. A psychological thriller or horror, the film keeps the viewers on their toes without a minute of respite. A special mention should be made for Vincent Cassel who oozes charm as Thomas and the equally charismatic Mila Kunis as Lily.