by HELEN GEIB
The characters of Black Swan breathe the rarefied air of high culture. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a prestigious New York company. The company director is an expatriate French sophisticate. The dancers are beautiful, totally dedicated to their art, and terribly thin. When Nina is presented to the public as the next Odette, the Swan Princess in the company’s marquee production of Swan Lake, it is to a room filled with wealthy donors in glamorous evening clothes sipping fine champagne.
Nina’s mind is fragile; her emotions repressed. Dancing the dual role of the innocent, doomed White Swan and her seductress doppelganger the Black Swan precipitates a long-brewing psychological crisis.
In summary, Black Swan is an arty psychodrama about an artist’s mental breakdown.
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky has made a movie that is vital and contemporary. He forces the audience into Nina’s disintegrating mind using the visuals and sound design of a horror film. Approaching footsteps and other ominous noises punctuate the musical score, while Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake is the omnipresent haunting soundtrack to Nina’s life. The camera hovers around her at all times. Because we can’t see beyond her field of vision, we are captive to her delusions and perpetual anxieties. We can’t see into the shadows because she can’t trust her own eyes. A bogeyman could appear behind her at any moment.
In Portman’s performance, Nina is more than a construct, but she is a construct. She is the trauma of being a young woman in modern America.
Ballet epitomizes the culture’s impossible-to-fulfill standard of physical perfection and eternal youthfulness. Nina is anorexic and bulimic. In being elevated to the starring role, she is replacing the company’s former prima ballerina, who is “such a beautiful dancer” but already old- and forced into retirement- at thirty-something. The White Swan/ Black Swan dichotomy is an unsubtle, potent symbol of irreconcilable images/idols of innocence and sexuality. Other characters’ demands embody the symbolic battle over her body. Nina’s horror of a mother would keep her daughter her little girl forever, while the director she idolizes demands a sexual being who will fulfill his particular artistic vision.
Black Swan is a challenging and difficult film for several reasons, but perhaps for no greater reason than its unremitting seriousness. The filmmaking insists on total identification with Nina’s mind. Her childlike self-absorption and lack of perspective rule out even the tiniest hint of levity. She can’t see anything funny about or in what’s happening to her and therefore, neither can the film. It’s a bold demand to make of a nation of moviegoers accustomed to irony and other shortcuts to emotional detachment.
3 1/2 stars
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