Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder
Thomas Leroy: Perfection is not just about control. It is also about letting go.
From my understanding, to be a true ballerina, one must always strive for perfection. Your toes, your torso, your lines must be just so. If you’re serious about ballet, you might be lucky enough to join a company. Only a select few get to be company soloists though. And so, lightly prancing about beneath the stage at any given ballet, you will find dozens of girls all striving toward an unattainable goal - some starving themselves and some hoping the soloist will take a bad fall and need replacing at the last second. It’s a microcosm, ripe with potential for drama and madness, making it the perfect setting for Darren Aronofsky’s latest, BLACK SWAN.
At the film’s start, a single spotlight rises on two feet, tightly wound in the tiniest of slippers. They begin to dance and as they land one after the other, we can see how delicate ballet is and how tortuous it must be to make it look that good. When the camera pulls away to reveal that these feet do in fact belong to Natalie Portman, it is clear just how much grace she will bring to this film. And by the time a beastly creature makes itself known to this frightened dancer, it is clear that Aronofsky is about to, yet again, give us something unlike anything else he’s done.
Portman is Nina, a dancer with the New York City Ballet who has just been cast as the Swan Princess in the upcoming production of “Swan Lake”. To do so in exactly the manner her director (Vincent Cassel) demands, she must embody the spirit of both the white and the black swan. Yes, the thematic conflict for this character is obvious at this point but Aronofsky tells it with complex visual style that jetés between jarring and captivating. And Portman, who has reportedly been in dance lessons since she was a toddler, knows the pressure of the dancer. She is to tightly wound that by the time her dark side begins to show its face, we are just as ready to release as she is. It certainly doesn’t help matters that her mother (Barbara Hershey) pressures her to succeed, a new dancer (Mila Kunis) wants her spot and the soloist she replaced (Winona Ryder) wants her just plain gone.
BLACK SWAN is as theatrical and as dramatic as any ballet that I’ve seen performed on stage. Aronofsky directs but, from behind the camera, he dances alongside the dancers as if he was part of the choreography, forming some hybrid of dance and film that begs repeat performances. It also warrants a resounding standing ovation.