With “Black Swan,” director Darren Aronofsky continues his aptness for characters on their way to destruction -- and his new protagonist is well on her way. It can be hard to watch, gut-wrenching at times. And yet “Black Swan” tells her downward-spiraling story masterfully, not to mention unforgettably. Those leaving the theater will definitely be talking about it afterward.
In the film, Nina’s degradation is the result of her obsession to be perfect at what she does. She’s already halfway gone when the opening fades in. This isn’t entirely her fault. We soon see she’s been pushed into her life by a domineering mother who once had her own chance at the life at which she now insists her daughter excel. This push drives Nina to sacrifice everything, inside and out. She’s too focused all along to see that to make it to old age you need at least one part of you to stay intact.
Nina’s world is an obsessive one. She’s a member of a big city ballet company. This profession no doubt demands perfection in performance and appearance, and we see it still doesn’t always treat perfection kindly after a certain age. Nina’s mother and predecessor can both vouch for that.
Nina desperately wants to take over the “aging” star’s place in her company’s new vision of “Swan Lake.” She has to succeed. So begins, or rather, continues, the pressure. Her ballet world is cutthroat. No room for sympathy among young dancers. She has to be the best right now. She has obstacles, both internal and external.
Her instructor wants her to excel, insisting talent isn’t enough. She needs the passion you can’t learn from practicing steps. What’s interesting is how he uses sexual bullying to get her there without seeming overly threatening. But to a nażve young girl who yearns to earn her place at the top, he can seem like a hurricane to survive.
Throw some competition into the mix: A new transplant to the company seems friendly and menacing at the same time. After all, bad girls have the market cornered on passion. So Nina is skeptical of her openness and only relents to escape from her own mother, a move that opens her up while tumbling her fragile mind even further.
This mother is by far her biggest problem. Her command over her grown daughter, who still lives with her, is frightening, not just the emotional tug-of-war but her very physical influence. She wore the dancing shoes but was forced to give it up and obviously sees her daughter as both a cause, reminder and vicarious redemption. That’s a lot of pressure.
The scenes with these two can be particularly disturbing. You’ll wince at the older woman’s unconscious damage. Try not to as she forces her daughter to sit still while primping her to perfection, sometimes cutting a little too close, literally.
In fact, several scenes may require squirming to get through. These are the scenes of bodily degeneration. Nina’s back rash is a physical manifestation of her growing psychosis. On top of that, torn skin on different parts is shocking. It turns out the majority of these, but not all, are in her head.
On the other hand, Nina’s delusions are told by a master. It’s truly ambiguous which parts are due to madness. At the end you still may not know if her visit to her precursory dancer at the hospital ended in violence or ever took place at all. Only when her psyche gets out of control, such as seeing her body disfigure to resemble a swan’s, do we know what’s fake before she does.
Natalie Portman is unforgettable as Nina. It’s not often we see someone display such beauty and naivety while making us want nothing more than to turn away from it. But you can’t. It’s like watching a dramatization of a historical tragedy you have to watch, hoping this person can overcome her fate even when you know that can never be.
All in all, this tale of insanity gets you in the gut. It’s depressing and often cringe-worthy. At the same time, the grace and care that went into it leaves an impression that you have to talk about. No one walks out in silence unless they’re just too stunned.
You may not have a good time watching “Black Swan,” but you won’t forget it too quickly, either.
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