Ballet isn’t pretty.
It’s an art form populated by athletes and artists…the divas and the damaged. Behind all of those slippers and chiffon is an existence fuelled by obsession, lust, politics, immediacy and borderline insanity.
Makes you wonder what keeps a ballerina from going insane.
BLACK SWAN is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman). Nina is a ballerina in a New York ballet company under the tutelage of a director named Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Thomas has pushed the company into a state of flux by promoting Nina to the position of prima ballerina…much to the dismay of the outgoing prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder).
The company begins work on a production of Swan Lake – a production Nina has long dreamed of starring in. But there’s a hitch – Thomas wants Nina to play a dual role. This requires her to not only demonstrate exemplarily technique (which Nina has), it also demands her to exude an extraordinary amount of sensuality (which Nina lacks).
Thomas taunts as much as he tutors, leaving Nina at a loss for answers. Likewise adding to the stress is that the company’s latest addition Lily (Mila Kunis) effortlessly exudes the sensuality Nina so desperately needs to capture. And topping it all off, Nina’s mom Erica (Barbara Hershey) seems bent on her daughter achieving a level of excellence that she never did in her own dancing days.
Like I say – makes you wonder what keeps a dancer from going insane.
The only thing holding someone like Nina back is herself – hence the omnipresent imagery of the mirror. When mirrors are everywhere, unmercifully showing you nothing more than you show them, one can soon be left with the feeling that there’s nowhere to run. It’s this constant paranoia, and fixation on her own reflection that causes Nina to crack.
She comes undone not only because of the face she sees staring back at her, but in the traces of herself she can see in the women around her. She sees part of herself in her mother – the dancer whose talent is long in the past. There is a part of her in Beth – the dancer trying to cope with the curtain falling for the final time. And most upsetting for Nina is the part of her in Lily – the firecracker ingenue hungry to take her spot.
Thus the artist is not only pushed by want she wants to achieve, but by what she hopes to avoid. It’s enough to make any normal person go insane (yet another difference between us and them), and underlines just why it is that so many of the greatest talent comes with being a tortured genius.
Framing this story perfectly, is the way Darren Aronofsky has focused in on the demanding physical exuberance required for ballet more than the poise and grace. One of the best examples of this is a shot seen through Nina’s eyes as she spots through pirouettes, leaving us determined and disoriented as Thomas yells “Attack It!” in our ear. Indeed, what BLACK SWAN wants us to understand, is that ballet is not about posture and beauty as much as it is about athleticism and surrender.
Portman embodies this story perfectly. Beyond the fact that she has physically committed to the role to the point that seemingly every filament of her muscle can be seen, she embodies Nina’s poise and panic in a way that is heartbreaking and unsettling. She shows us just how far she has to go to achieve mastery of her craft, and once she shows us, she leaves us in a confused state…not knowing whether we should encourage her to keep going, or to stop for the sake of her sanity.
BLACK SWAN is a dark, disturbed tragedy. When great talent drives to be its best, the biggest hurdle is themselves. While the rest of us stand back in awe of what people like Nina are capable of, she looks inward and sees subtle flaws that hold her back. That the difference between them and us. Those of us who sit in the seats can take a better-than-average outing and call it a win. Those who are up on the stage however, can’t call anything less than perfection a win.