Black Swan is an extremely well-acted psychological thriller about a tightly-wound ballet dancer who may or may not be losing her mind as a result of the stress of her job (and, perhaps, malnutrition from her bulimia). It’s also thinly plotted and hard to watch because of (I assume deliberately) shaky cinematography and dim lighting.
A New York ballet company is putting on a production of Swan Lake just as its longtime star, now 35, is being forced out of her role due to age. Nina, a shy but very talented technical ballerina, wins the central part playing both the White and Black Swans in the show, but finds herself beset by doubts, hounded by impossible visions, and threatened by a new dancer just in from San Francisco who may or may not be trying to steal her role.
The movie rests heavily on the depth of its four main characters and the performances given by those actors. Natalie Portman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her central role as Nina, a fragile, childlike ballerina who is perfect for the White Swan role but is so obsessed with perfection that she can’t provide the passionate, reckless dancing required for a convincing seductress Black Swan. Portman, like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, has to be on pointe throughout the film to pull it off, as her character is in every scene and she must be credible as an adult whose emotional and physical growth has been stunted. I was put off by her wispy voicing of almost every line through the first hour and a half, although it did help cement her nervous, timid personality.
Mila Kunis probably earned more notoriety for her sex scene with Portman than she did for her work in the rest of the film, but whose work as a free-spirited, gregarious colleague who must create suspicion in the viewer’s mind about her ultimate motives was as essential to the film’s credibility as Portman’s work. Vincent Cassel, whom I’d only seen before in Eastern Promises, is outstanding as Thomas, the creepy-but-not-always-creepy director of the ballet company, a man who is probably abusing his position and yet gives no doubt that he is committed to coaxing a command performance from his star. Barbara Hershey, playing Nina’s mother, alternates between a vindictive Mommie Dearest and a loving if overprotective mother who is desperate to prevent ballet from ruining her daughter’s life while living vicariously through her daughter’s success.
But how much of what we see is real, and how much is filtered through the distorted lenses of Nina’s hallucinations? Much of what we see in the film is clearly faulty wiring in her head, including a scene where she peels a thick layer of skin off her finger, or another where her legs spontaneously break in absurd directions. But those obvious illusions could be tipping us off that much of what seems real isn’t, something backed up by frequent decisions to use a vantage point directly behind Nina’s head. Is her mother actually the witch we see in half of her scenes, or is that Nina’s perception of her? How much of Lily’s two-faced personality is, again, Nina’s jealousy manifesting itself in imagined or distorted conversations that are shown to us through her mind? I don’t think there’s a correct answer on this one, but after thinking about the movie for the last 36 hours, I’m inclined to believe that she is the film’s unreliable narrator, and virtually none of what we see before the final scene can be taken at face value.
The story itself contains enough small twists and turns to maintain a moderate level of tension, even though it should be clear from the start where we must finish, since Thomas explains the plot of Swan Lake and the script doesn’t hide the parallels between the film and the ballet within it. But the decision to shoot so many scenes from behind Portman on some kind of handheld camera made for very rough, shaky cinematography – again, possibly a conscious decision to reflect the turmoil inside of Nina’s head, but hell to watch at long stretches. That’s exacerbated by the fact that the lighting in just about every scene in the film is poor and everything is dank and gray, good for keeping the mood bleak but, again, tough to watch for a hundred minutes.
My wife danced for about seven years as a child at a local ballet school, so I defer to her on questions about the dancing in the film. Her gut impression was that we were seeing much more of Portman’s dancing double, Sarah Lane, than we were of Portman, saying the key was to watch the character’s feet – a non-professional dancer couldn’t point her toes or arch her foot half as well as someone who’s been dancing for a decade, because of muscle and bone development. She assumed that any time Nina’s feet were out of the shot or her face wasn’t visible – we had a lot of scenes where her face was blocked by another character or only visible in a blurry reflection in a mirror – that it was her double.
To answer two questions I’m anticipating from the regular readers among you:
* I’m torn on Best Actress between Portman and Lawrence. Both roles were difficult. Both women executed them about as well as I could expect. I think Lawrence’s was more difficult, but feel like I’m unqualified to make that judgment when it’s such a close call; it seems to me like playing a child who acts convincingly like an adult would be harder than playing an adult who acts convincingly like a child. I know Lawrence was more critical to Winter’s Bone than Portman was to Black Swan, but is that not analogous to judging an MVP candidate by the caliber of his teammates? I still lean Lawrence, but without confidence that she’s the right call over Portman.
* Best Picture: I’m through seven, and this would be at the bottom of the seven for me. Good movie, but not on par with the previous six I’ve seen. I think The Kids Are All Right is on its way to us from Netflix.