written by: Michelle Lloyd
“I just want to be perfect.”
- Natalie Portman as ‘Nina Sayers’.
Obsession, determination, passion and above all perfection, but at what cost?
Nominated for more than 20 awards (including several Oscars) and winner of the Best Actress in a Drama Award (Natalie Portman) Black Swan is a psychological thriller complete with twists and turns that would throw even the most savvy film viewers and critics from their moorings.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (director of Academy Award and Oscar nominated films such as The Wrestler) Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, an a-typical ballerina who vies for the double lead role of the Swan/Black Swan in the classic ballet of the same title. Actress Natalie Portman introduces the audience to aspiring ballerina Nina Sayers as the film opens in the heart of New York City. A beautiful young woman afflicted with apprehension and feelings of doubt where her dancing career is concerned, Sayers still lives with her controlling, disillusioned mother who lost her own dancing career when she became pregnant with Nina. As we later discover Sayers has an obsessive compulsive disorder which starts out with relatively harmless scratching but ultimately sets up for the rest of the events that follow.
As the film progresses we explore the fragile psyche of Sayers and the eventual downward spiral of an obsessive personality. Competing for a role she feels she must defend against another talented ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), who unlike Sayers, is an off-kilter and daring San Francisco native; a girl who parties and sleeps with nameless men in her spare time away from the stage.
With the new competition for the important, literally life-changing role, Sayers (Portman) soon finds herself up against much more than her own self-doubt: she must prove herself to the snooty French director of the play. Thomas (played by Vincent Cassel) is a man who has more interest in sleeping with his talent than in their skills or feelings and soon becomes interested in the enigmatic dancer, Lily. Through trickery of camera angles and a protagonist in Portman that doesn’t see things quite as they are, the film throws the audience directly into the world of the mentally unstable Sayers. Sayers begins to hallucinate and delves deep into the realm of the paranoid and unsure, seeing images of darker versions of herself several times in a symbolic show of foreshadowing.
Symbolism plays a large and important role in this Aronofsky film; images of dark shadows show the carnal need to let go and indulge, the themes of sex (woven into the film in both upfront and concealed ways) suggest both confinement and freedom. The most striking motif through the film seemed to be the struggle to fight the darkness that ultimately resides in all of us. The film also shows the audience the trouble with simply giving in to the pull of this darkness in the character of former and now washed up ballerina Beth Macintyre (played by a toned-down Winona Ryder). After having played the role of the Swan for years and watching as she is replaced by the young Nina Sayers, Beth suffers a mental breakdown and attempts to take her own life; another example of foreshadowing that sneaks up on the audience as the film comes to a close.
Since the film focuses on the play and the idea that the ballerina that is chosen for the role must represent two parts (light and dark, good and evil) it is almost too appropriate that the ballerina (Sayers) vying for the role is mentally unhinged and psychologically divided. Aronofsky takes this story and with his award winning talent conjures a brilliant picture that easily and smoothly draws the audience into the feelings of the volatile Sayers.
With a star-studded cast at the helm, Black Swan gives this reviewer the biggest plot twisting surprise since Bruce Willis’ final reveal in last moments of M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 hit, The Sixth Sense. Natalie Portman, arguably one of the film’s strongest talents, delivers an emotional and flawless performance that would unsettle the most hard-hearted and yet leaves many wanting more. In doing so, Portman proves once again why she is among the top in the acting game. Aronofsky twists the audience around so skillfully, effectively and subtly that by the ‘sharp’ ending of the film, when the curtains draw to a close, viewers simply don’t know which way is up. They are ultimately left staring, slack-jawed and contemplative as the credits roll. While this film is certainly not for the faint-hearted (or the young with its R rated approach) this piece of work easily provides material for the kind of chatter that attracts people to the theatres; the same chatter that wins awards and critical acclaim.
Rating: **** ½ out of 5