There are many close-up shots of extremities in Black Swan: fingernails bleed; toes crack and merge; skin ripples with goosebumps. All perfect symbols for the major questions this movie raises: to what extreme should someone go to achieve artistic perfection? To what extreme will a director go to produce perfection in a performer? And to what extreme will a parent go to project her own dreams on a child under the guise of protecting that child?
The answer: as far as possible, and then some. In Darren Aronofsky’s hands and with a mind-bending performance by Natalie Portman, Black Swan treads the fine line between schlocky melodrama and intense psychological thriller – and stays on the right side of that line. “Intense” is the operative word here: I felt drained afterward, but also highly aware, my mind jumping as I pondered the big questions mentioned above, plus the timeless question of whether genius is always accompanied by madness.
There is no question about that issue here. For Black Swan addresses another type of extreme: the spectrum of personalities, in this case personified by Nina, the ballerina portrayed by Natalie Portman. Nina is shy and inexperienced, closeted in a claustrophobic New York apartment with only her overprotective mother for company. Her room is that of a 12-year-old girl, frozen in time, and she looks at the world through downcast eyes with an uncertain smile. And yet very early on, as she find she’s competing for, and then wins, the dual role of the White and Black Swans in a new version of the classic ballet Swan Lake, she begins to see her doppelganger. And when she sees her twin in the mirror doing different things from her, you know you’re in for a wild ride.
The symbology here isn’t subtle – the Black Swan vs. White Swan metaphor is raised directly very early by the manipulative artistic director, Thomas, played with reserved control by Vincent Cassel – but it doesn’t need to be. We know the dilemma from the start, and can only watch with increasing horror as Nina dissolves under the pressure as she begins to observe, become friends with, and eventually feel herself merge into Lily, a new and potential competitor for the role played by Mila Kunis. Lily is everything Nina is not: free, open, willing to try new things. She becomes Nina's Black Swan.
Portman is breathtaking, and appears in virtually every scene (the only exceptions being short scenes of other character that she’s observing). It must be a terrible temptation to overplay one or both aspects of the role (the good vs. the evil) but she resists this, and instead allows the Black Swan to emerge in a sudden explosion (mostly through a series of dreams or visions that had me jumping in my seat). This transformation is all that more compelling as Portman plays the innocent part so well. In the scene in which Nina calls her mother to let her know she’s won the role, saying “I got the part, Mommy,” Portman’s entire face seems to regress 10 years in an instant, and you see a 12-year-old girl.
Visually, the movie is arresting with a subdued palate of blacks and whites that matches the theme. Camera movement imitates the action, with swirling pans accompanying the dancing, or jittery handheld work accentuating Nina’s mental breakdown.
My only complaint concerns the former prima ballerina, Beth, played by Winona Ryder. Her performance is fine, but I question the need for the character. It also sets up an unfulfilled expectation, perhaps intended as some sort of misdirection, that the film will address the issue of how performers, particularly female, are used and then tossed away. Given that the real focus of this movie is Nina’s psychological breakdown under the extreme pressures she’s under and the extreme upbringing she’s had, the scenes with Beth feel somewhat like filler.
In the end, however, that’s a mild complaint about a general outstanding movie. And if Natalie Portman doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, I’ll be shocked. I haven’t seen many movies this year, but it is extremely difficult to envision a more powerful performance.