Now available on DVD, “Black Swan” stars Natalie Portman in a (literally) to die for role that won her this year’s Best Female Actor Academy Award. Portman reportedly trained for nearly a year to act and dance the part of Nina Sayers, a ballerina for a New York ballet company. Though there are clearly spots where a double was used, she appears to have done much of the dancing, a remarkable enough feat. But that isn’t what made her the prohibitive favorite to lug home the statue of Uncle Oscar and place it next to the other awards she received for her work in the film.
For the role of Nina presents that toughest of demands: portraying a person losing her grip on sanity, without making the acting look phony. The histrionics notwithstanding, she has to show the gradual onset of the inability to distinguish illusion (or delusion) and reality. The precipitating moment, paradoxically, arrives when Nina achieves her dream: dancing the lead role in “Swan Lake.” That role demands her shifting from innocent girl to seductive woman, or good to evil. Though Nina’s technique is flawless, her director (Vincent Cassel) tells her that her dancing lacks the requisite emotional content. Unstinting in his pressure, he works her long hours, continually bringing up her failure, almost seducing her, and toying with the idea of switching to Lily, a free spirited alternate dancer, played convincingly by Mila Kunis.
Nina has no respite in her cramped apartment, as her mother (Barbara Hershey, playing the stage mother from Hell) also insists on her achieving perfection, though she couches her demands in the terms and gestures of maternal affection, serving as Cassel’s foil and complement. Nina’s room, all in pink and filled with stuffed animals, stands in stark contrast to the black and white scheme that dominates almost every other setting, including her director’s apartment. Film director Darren Aronofsky and his design team give us what might be last year’s most stylish movie, though occasionally it gets a bit much. (Whether this is in the spirit of ballet as an art form is not for my inexpert self to say.)
As Nina’s insanity comes to the fore, so does the film’s technical virtuosity. It was nominated for film directing and cinematography awards, and rightly so. Aronofsky’s nomination as best director and the one for best picture are more problematic: the film is way too predictable, at times bordering on corny. Portman’s performance and possibly Hershey’s are exceptional, but the ensemble is pretty ordinary, and the payoff is just lame (pun intended).
“Black Swan” is appropriately rated “R” for language and sexual content: parents whose children aspire to ballet should be advised that this is much more than a “dance movie.” It’s certainly an unusual film, one that sparked controversy and discussion among critics and audiences. I recommend it with the above reservations.