“In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly right—but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?”
This film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show! Listen to the episode here!
If you think “terrifying” and “ballerina” don’t belong in the same sentence, you need to see Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, this is a psychological thriller as much as a drama, and it is anything but boring. The pressure and uncertainty that most artists face is amplified and captured in horrifying detail as the lead character Nina loses herself in her role as the Swan Queen. It’s a different kind of thriller: very character-centric and rich with symbolism. After watching it, you’ll never look at ballet the same again.
The plot follows Nina, a ballerina living in New York trying to land her first lead role. The company lead and choreographer Thomas Leroy announces the new production: Swan Lake. The lead role is actually two in one: the White Swan, which is elegant, innocent, and composed, and the Black Swan, which is captivating, seductive, and intuitive. Nina lands the role for her perfect portrayal of the White Swan, but needs to work to draw out her inner Black Swan. She forms a strange friendship with her perfect foil: Lily, who embodies everything it means to be the Black Swan. As Nina loses herself in the role, the pressure takes a serious toll on her psyche and she struggles to maintain her grip on reality while also struggling to be perfect in her role.
It’s very nice, but I knew the White Swan wouldn’t be your problem. The real work would be your metamorphosis into her evil twin.
There are a lot of amazing things about Black Swan, but the best is without a doubt Natalie Portman. Just like her character Nina, Portman poured herself into the role, essentially playing two characters: Nina as her natural White Swan self, and the darker Nina emerging as she draws out the Black Swan. Appearances of the dark Nina are subtle and easy to miss, but perfectly acted by Portman—so much so that I at first assumed it was a different actress. It’s no surprise that Portman won the Oscar for best actress in 2010, but she also won pretty much every best actress award from virtually everyone that year. This is undoubtedly one of the best—possibly the best—performances of Portman’s career, and that’s saying a lot, as she’s a very talented actress. Nobody could have played both sides of Nina like Portman.
But even without Portman’s performance, the movie is brilliant. The metaphor of Nina’s transformation into her darker self is fully explored without wearing it thin, and her quest for perfection in an incredibly demanding role virtually destroys her. The way Nina’s doting mother has stunted her growth as an adolescent is darkly hinted at, and Nina struggles to overcome this. We see Nina’s idealized version of the Black Swan act out on its own, sometimes in Lily, sometimes in a darker Nina, and it’s unclear exactly where the reality ends and imagination begins. The further Nina descends into darkness, the more blurry all the lines become, and the harder it becomes for Nina to remove herself from the dark world of the Black Swan. The finale of the film is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking, and is extremely powerful.
Black Swan draws deep emotions out of its viewers, and it’s a wild ride. To describe it as a roller coaster would be inaccurate. It’s more like one of those rides that just drops you into a freefall, and you don’t know when the end will come or how far you will fall—you just know that it’s thrilling and descending quickly. It may be too dark and intense for some, and the metaphor-rich plot may be too convoluted for others; but overall, it’s a brilliant thriller with stellar acting and directing. And if you’re an artist or you enjoy psychological thrillers, this movie will definitely resonate with you.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Genres: drama, indie, thriller