Now that Rachael has covered many of Chicago’s cupcake establishments, she felt it was time to start adding some “Flicks” to Flicks and Eats, and what better time than the month leading up to the 83rd Academy Awards®? As we get to know this year’s Best Picture nominees, Rachael has asked me—much against my better judgment—to provide the reviews. I’m sure you, Rachael’s audience, have better things to do than read my meandering thoughts, but in the spirit of marital cooperation, I’ve agreed to help out. So, grab a box of Jujubes®, some popcorn, and let’s dive in. – Ian
I’ve been told recently that the ballerina lifestyle portrayed in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is fairly accurate. If so, then count me out—I’ll stay a percussionist, thank you very much. Of all the fine arts, ballet is probably the one with the harshest extremes. At one end, it is about grace, precision, and control—at the other, pain, exhaustion, and torture, both mental and physical.
This duality, between light and darkness, forms the central focus of Black Swan. In the opening scene we see Nina (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina performing alone and vulnerable in the spotlight. She is soon pulled in different directions by opposing forces, chaste and malevolent. This is all just a dream, but it introduces a sense of dread and fear that permeates throughout the film.
Nina is a troupe performer at Lincoln Center, where the star ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), is being retired. The ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is looking for a new ingénue (love interest?) to be the Swan Queen in his upcoming production of Swan Lake. The role is one of ballet’s most revered, requiring the lead to perform as both the virtuous White Swan and her dark counterpart, the Black Swan. Thomas is confident Nina is perfect for the former, but is she too precise, too fragile, to get in touch with her seamier side?
Despite the fact that Nina is one of the premier dancers at one of New York’s prominent companies, she has never performed this role. That’s like a serious stage actor never having been Hamlet. Nonetheless, this is the part she was born to play—even her cellphone ringtone is Swan Lake. Her inability to tap into her dark side, however (despite Thomas’ somewhat lecherous methods of coercing it), threatens her opportunity, especially when the new kid in town, a wild child named Lily (Mila Kunis) is cast as her understudy.
In many ways, Lily is everything Nina wishes she could be—carefree, confident, naughty—while Beth embodies everything she fears becoming—used, washed-up, forgotten. It’s no coincidence that Lily’s wardrobe is all black, in stark contrast to Nina’s bright whites. Lily shows Nina what the other side is like, and something awakens deep inside her. Lily is Nina’s Tyler Durden, except she’s real. Or is she?
Black Swan is full of questions like this that wisely go unanswered. Who is the mysterious girl on the train? What became of Nina’s last meeting with Beth? What will we see around the next corner? The narrative is strictly first-person—we experience everything through Nina’s eyes. As Nina’s dark side begins to assert itself (sometimes violently), we follow her into madness, and each moment becomes more paranoid than the last. Indeed, there is hardly a scene that goes by that doesn’t contain a mirror or a creepy sense of being watched. (A particularly nervous scene involving a faceless winged statue gave me enough anxiety that I was relieved when it was over.)
The casting is one of Black Swan’s many triumphs, especially with Portman and Kunis. Portman has always done fragility well, but here she takes it to a new level while saving enough energy for her bad girl. I’ve heard that to prepare for the role, she lost 20 pounds and underwent extensive ballet training for months. It pays off and rightfully earned her a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination. The cinematography and imagery is often foreboding and disturbing, sometimes unnecessarily so, but it all comes together for an effective, emotional thriller.
It’s worth noting that the musical score is predominantly Tchaikovsky (who also knew a thing or two about having a tortured, dual life) and fittingly so. At the end of the day, the players on the stage hang up their shoes and go home to reality. For Nina, that distinction ceases to exist. She is the Swan Queen, and her own personal soundtrack is that of Swan Lake.