When the credits rolled, I wanted to bolt upright and shout, “WE GOT ONNNNNNNNNNNNE!” while ringing a very loud bell. I didn’t, and now I’m all upset that an opportunity like that isn’t likely to come my way again. Black Swan, my friends, is the illest.
After seeing Black Swan, I ran around my house until I finally found what I was looking for. There it lay, up in the attic in an old JC Penney box that was covered in a thick layer of dust.
The elusive Fifth Star.
Not since There Will Be Blood can I remember digging out that thing, but now, with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan finally in town, I see no other choice than to polish it up and put it where it belongs, atop a review of a modern movie. The way I see it, there’s nothing keeping every director from making movies like this one, which tells the tale of a repressed dancer who struggles so violently to remain perfect that her mind begins to fragment. It’s a staggeringly beautiful tribute to Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake, exploring its themes of good and evil and how they can come together in both harmony and conflict within the mind.
Quotes from the classic score punctuate as well as facilitate the action as a ballet company in New York opens their season by performing a Swan Lake that’s been re-imagined by the intimidating artistic director, Thomas (played by Vincent Cassel). In this production, he decides, the innocent, wronged Swan Queen and the seductive Black Swan will be played by the same dancer. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is chosen for the role, despite Thomas’s misgivings that she is all form and no passion, and free-spirited newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) laughs her way into the understudy position.
Nina works hard, too hard, both supported and pushed by her mother, a former ballerina played by Barbara Hershey. Her frustration at her inability to impress Thomas as well as her resentment of Lily’s seemingly effortless talent is haunted by visions of the company’s former prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder). Suddenly told that it’s time to retire, the “aging” leading lady isn’t taking it well, and before Nina has even had time to adjust to her promotion, her own wolves are already circling.
Or are they? The second best thing about Black Swan is its absolute ambivalence. This is no Fight Club; there aren’t any big realizations that suddenly help everything fall into place. The energy that keeps this film moving comes from (I’m going to say it) genius directing that keeps you uncertain, even days later, about which events were true and which weren’t. It’s liberating to realize that it doesn’t matter. Aronofsky positions us completely inside Nina’s head, even following Portman around so closely with a camera that you’re always on the verge of discomfort, and it’s vital to our point of view that we are just as confused as she is. And, brother, is she confused.
Poor Nina alternates between desperation, fear, and bewilderment, an utter tour de force for Portman, who will almost certainly receive an Oscar for her performance. I’ve never seen Portman do anything like this before, and, as a matter of fact, I’ve never seen Meryl Streep do anything like this before. But at no point during the heartstopping speed of the film do you ever think that thought. Nope, you’ve forgotten about Natalie Portman and are instead focused on the troubles of this person before you, who is certainly real and surely never played opposite any CGI morons named “Jar-Jar.”
While Black Swan does include several of Swan Lake’s more tragic elements, I couldn’t help leaving the theater feeling high on life.* Movies are back, guys, movies are back. It may have taken something huge like this to knock us back to our senses, but movies are definitely back.
*Once I got past some of the more nauseating special effects. Barf.