Release date in India: March 4, 2011
Director: Darron Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder
“The only person standing in your way is you,” Nina Sayers is told at one point in Black Swan. So what’s the solution? Should she eliminate herself?
These are among the many questions and demons that Nina the ballerina in Black Swan battles as she takes on the role of a lifetime.
Black Swan is set in a New York ballet company which is preparing for a performance of Swan Lake. I know I know, it’s been done to death, admits artistic director Leroy Thomas even as he announces his plans to his team. But this Swan Lake will be different, he assures them. Thomas knows that Nina – fragile and waif-like that she is – would be impeccable as the White Swan. Problem is that he wants the same dancer playing the more vibrant and sensual Black Swan too. Can technically perfect Nina let go of her inhibitions to embrace that role?
A new dancer enters the troupe. Lily (Mila Kunis) compensates for the lacunae in her technique with her unshackled, unbridled style. In her, Thomas sees the potential for his Black Swan. But then one day, alone in his room, Nina reacts unexpectedly and violently to his overtures. Clearly there’s a side to her usually subdued personality that she’s not unleashing. Nina is cast in both roles, with Lily as her alternate. What follows is a story of artistic obsession and insecurities, discipline and a pathetic desire for approval, passionate perfectionism and fatal ambition.
Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) is not the first person in the world to take up the story of a play mirroring the lives of some of its performers. But there’s nothing predictable about Black Swan and its gut-wrenching, bone-rattling, blood-stirring take on an artist who will go to any lengths to achieve her life’s only goal: “I just want to be perfect.”
Nina’s world is divided between the theatre where she hones her craft and her home where she shares her joys and tears with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself. As is the case with many of our closest relationships, Nina and Erica share both a deep love and a certain resentment towards each other.
The beauty of Black Swan is that there’s very little in it that is obvious or over-stated, and at each step you are left gasping at the possibility that what you just saw was not Nina’s reality but a figment of the imagination of her frail mind. Is this a tale of professional pre-occupations, resentments and rivalries? Or is it just a journey into Nina’s distraught psyche? Is Nina consumed by her passion for her art or by her own troubled soul? Is she schizophrenic, paranoid and delusional or simply a self-destructive method actor? Should an artist be willing to destroy herself in a quest for perfection? And if she ultimately achieves that perfection, would you still call it self-destruction?
The tragedy of Black Swan is heightened by our awareness of some of what Natalie Portman subjected herself to for this role. She reportedly trained for 10 months in ballet for Black Swan and also lost many kilos to achieve Nina’s skinny look. But there’s more to her incredible performance than just its physical attributes. As Nina struggles with the role of the Black Swan in her ballet, you may find yourself (like me) sub-consciously waiting for a facial transformation. What you will get instead is a dance performance where her face is barely seen, where she is the very embodiment of the Black Swan, another human being altogether, acting with every pore of her body and yet not acting at all. She is no longer playing the part of the Black Swan in a stage production of Swan Lake in the film Black Swan. No, my God, she becomes the Black Swan!
If Natalie Portman is brilliant in this film, so is the casting director. Every actor here is well chosen. In a year filled with many outstanding performances, I’d still say Mila Kunis playing Lily was unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. Vincent Cassel as Leroy Thomas too deserves a special mention as the man who drives Nina to be what he knows she can be. When he tells her there should be no boundaries between them, is he being a sleazebag on a casting couch or an obsessive artist himself? Is he genuinely attracted to Nina or is he only driven by a belief that shaking her up and stirring up her mind is the only way to force her to shrug off her shyness on stage?
Aided by this amazing cast, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Andrew Weisblum’s editing, Aronofsky has put together a supremely disturbing film.
What Black Swan could have done without though, were the cliches in production design and costume. Innocent Nina is dressed in white; those around her are mostly in black. It’s been a couple of centuries since Tchaikovsky conceptualised Swan Lake in which the White Swan and the Black Swan represent good & innocence contrasted with evil & sensuality. To duplicate that colour scheme in a contemporary stage show of Swan Lake is completely acceptable; but to then transpose that black-is-bad-white-is-good palette on to a modern-day film about the lives of Swan Lake’s cast seems literal and even regressive.
Equally stereotypical and cliched is the director and writing team’s decision to equate virginity with innocence, also suggesting that lack of sexual promiscuity is the same as sexual repression, while the free-spirited woman (Lily) must perforce be an overtly sexual and sexually experimental being. Nina at one point seems to consider some rocking lesbian action between the sheets as a means of “letting go” of her inhibitions on stage. Thomas is concerned about whether she has a boyfriend or not. He even gives her a home assignment one evening: “touch yourself,” he says, then adds, “live a little.” Really Mr Aronofsky, why this silly stereotyping in an otherwise fabulous film?!
And I say FABULOUS although we Indians are being served up a truncated version of Black Swan. Having passed brief shots of good old boy-with-girl action and even allowed a considerable dose of masturbation, our stiff-necked Censor Board has dropped a butcher’s knife on a lesbian sex scene in the film. Now that our courts have decriminalised homosexuality, perhaps it’s time to criminalise such interference with art.
That’s an issue we need to debate at a national level. Until then, do go watch this beautiful film.
Rating (out of five): ****
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Swan_(film)