Portman, Kunis Vie for Being ‘Black Swan’


Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Wynona Ryder. Directed by Darron Aronofsky

I was hesitant to see this movie. I’ve had several friends say that it’s the greatest thing since Elvis, sliced bread, and the invention of the wheel. Any other detractors are mumbling. In fact Yahoo! Movie reviews gives it a pretty high average rating in their system. Still, I held out on seeing it until last night. My verdict:

It’s okay.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie; far from it. This is the kind of movie made for up-and-coming filmmakers sitting in classrooms across the country who want to latch onto some piece of “aht” (art) because they’re tired of the crapulence that comes from Hollywood signing-off for sequels with reckless abandon and shoving another bag of money in front of Michael Bay’s face (“Sure, I can do another ‘Armageddon!’”) It’s a work for those who decry story for visualization; mainstream for cult filmmaking. Concept vs. the politics of aestheticism. It’s the kind of movie that essays and books are written about.

And now, the rundown:

Nina Sayers (Portman) wakes from a dream. She’s part of a ballet company and auditions are being held for “Swan Lake.” Nina is a perfectionist with a capital ‘P.’ She works hard, goes the distance, and literally hurts herself for not being perfect by scratching her back and drawing blood. “Hardcore perfection” knows few other better characters than her.

During practice director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) walks through, tapping out several dancers. He announces that the company’s next work is “Swan Lake,” an adaptation that will be raw and stripped down. The parts of the White and the Black Swan will be played by the same person. Leroy tells Nina that she is flawless in playing the White Swan because she is about perfection however she is not able to play the Black Swan because she is too perfect.

Enter Lily (Kunis), a dancer brought in from San Francisco. Leroy called her in to be part of “Swan Lake.” From the get-go Lily is the near polar-opposite of Nina. Nina strives for perfection, Lily lets life happen. Nina is “straight-edged” whereas Lily smokes, drinks, has a tattoo on her back, and does whatever she wants. Lily is also Nina’s main competition for the Black Swan character.

But let’s go back to Nina and talk a little about her. She lives with her mother Erica (Hershey) who has pushed Nina to be a ballerina since childhood. Erica herself used to be a ballerina but gave up that career in order to give birth to Nina. Nina’s struggle for absolute perfection shows in her bloodied and bandaged toes, her bitten-off nails (to prevent her from scraping her back), and the fact that ballet is all that she knows. She has an autistic centrification on the business as a means of achieving perfection as opposed to a service to life. This “autism” leads to her slow mental and emotional breakdown.

Lastly, the exit of Leroy’s former ballerina Beth Macintyre (Ryder). Beth was formerly looked upon with praise by Leroy as well as being a lover of his. After Nina pleads for the part of the Black Swan Beth is “tossed aside,” which leads to her walking into a street and getting hit by a car.

What follows is a myriad of events centered around Nina as she explores who she is and what she wants to become. That’s the best way I can describe it.

So this movie is about…

… the monster or alter ego that lies inside us. This plot device has been formerly used in such movies as “Hide and Seek,” “Fight Club,” and “Frailty,” whereas the main character does not know that the evil lurking around the corner, or murdering people, is actually themselves. Nina has hallucinations about seeing a “darker’ version of herself in places, even passing by herself while walking to the train. The scratches on her back become deeper. She even imagines making love to herself in lieu of whoever really is. Her dark side is trying to take over the “goody two-shoes” that she is.

… sex. Hot, nasty, dirty sex. Nina is (presumably) a virgin or just really prudish. Lily is the exact opposite. Leroy WANTS to see Nina become the exact opposite. And when you’re bored with the frenetic close-up documentary-style shooting of Nina’s ballerina life Aronofsky injects a good amount of it ranging from Nina exploring herself to Leroy groping her to Lily going down on her. Who says that “high art” exists without it?

… duality. First off, Nina fights both sides of herself. Nina, as a ballerina, is going to be subjected into the same world in which her mother, and Beth, became a “victim” of: auteur directors who use sex to give an actress/ballerina “status.” Nina’s mother became pregnant with her while Beth was tossed aside. The sheltering that Erica put Nina through helped as much as it hurt – Nina is far too focused on being perfect and being the best ballerina in the company, if not the world, than living and enjoying life around her. On a side note: Nina’s finale rivals that of Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler.”

… autism/mental illness. Again, from the get-go, Nina is mentally ill. Protected by her mother and constantly striving for perfection she has built a fortress around herself. Or maybe a wall for others not to get in or know her too well. Hallucinations aside she beats herself up, scratches herself, bleeds from her fingers and toes, and in the end even stabs herself so she give her “Performance of a Lifetime.” She pays no heed to the world she’s in because her life centers around her career; it’s all that she knows or understands. There’s a bit of duality in that Beth shares that same viewpoint. We watch Nina sit, cry, and fight herself in order to be the best, but at what cost?

To reiterate: this is the type of film that thesis papers will be written about. That’s not a bad thing if you are into that side of the spectrum. Aronofsky’s talents reside more on visuals than story and if that’s what you enjoy about his work then “Black Swan” is par for the course. I am more an “innovation” person so while I can appreciate his talents I couldn’t help but feel like someone was sitting behind me with a softball bat beating me over the head screaming “This is ART!” It took about twenty minutes for that feeling to subside.

My only complaint, other than over-accentuation of aesthetic, is that I’m not a big fan of the camera UP CLOSE on the protagonist at nearly all times. It worked in 1966 when John Frankenheimer used it in the movie “Seconds,” but now the effect has dulled to the point of cliché.

In the end do I recommend the movie? If you’re int art for art’s sake then yes, by all means go and see it. If you want to be entertained this is probably not your film. If you’re wanting to see it for some hot sex between Portman and Kunis you may just want to search good ole YouTube.

My grade: C (averaged for ‘B’ for high art, ‘D’ for story)