The Ark Newspaper

The Black Swan
by Melinda Darlington-Bach

Natalie Portman in "Black Swan"One of the most anticipated and uber-hyped films of 2010 is BLACK SWAN, the latest offering from edgy director, Darren Aronofsky, (The Wrestler, Requiem For A Dream). The film is an ambitious and bizarre take on the highly competitive, working life of a professional ballet dancer and her struggle for perfection in order to remain at the top. Not a new idea as we saw this in all it's glory in the film "All About Eve." For full disclosure, this is a world I know very well having been a professional ballet dancer and choreographer for quite some time, so I look at this film through a prism of my dance experience.

BLACK SWAN uses the backdrop of the prestigious New York City Ballet for this excessive extravaganza and psychodrama that allows the audience to be somewhat of a voyeur into a rarified and misunderstood world. This film is about a young, disturbed but highly driven ballet dancer, Nina, who is cast in the title role in the iconic ballet, Swan Lake. Nina is shy and insecure in the beginning that works beautifully for the soft White Swan and faces enormous challenges of bringing the calculating, evil Black Swan to life. As she struggles to find a darker, sexual side, she descends further into her madness and disillusionment.

Natalie Portman as Nina delivers a wallop with her a strong, believable performance as the obsessive compulsive ballet dancer whose hallucinations verge on the absurd at times. Cutting, bulimia and anorexia are all forms of OCD and are not only found in the ballet world. To achieve her bravura performance, Miss Portman trained rigorously for a full year in ballet class up to five hours a day to inhabit the sylph-like vision. She also lost a great deal of weight. Her relationship with her over the top, ultimate stage mother, Barbara Hershey, moves the film further into her hallucinations and ODC territory. As if living vicariously through her daughter with the common theme of "giving my career up to raise a family", Miss Hershey is unrelenting and down right scary. I must say she gives the term "ballet mother" a whole new meaning. As usual, they cast the Artistic Director of the company (Victor Cassel) as cruel and subversive as well as a sexual -harassment lawsuit just waiting to happen. Mr. Cassel gives a believable performance as the director that is everything to the competing dancer's who become devoted to him under his tutelage and continue to submit his advances.

One of the standouts is Mila Kunis as Lily who is every ambitious ballet dancers nightmare. New dancer coming in, beautiful, sexy and talented right on Nina's heels fighting for the dual role in Swan Lake and vying for the attentions and advancement of the director. It is so refreshing to have the actress actually dance in her film and not always use a "dance double." Both Kunis and Portman did a great deal of all their own ballet dancing on film and this is quite a feat for trained actresses.

Using the role of White Swan and Black Swan (good girl/bad girl) as the arc of the filmic theme, Mr. Aronofsky decided he wanted to show challenges and the darkness and the bleak reality of becoming a ballet dancer. He is quoted as saying "I want it to represent the beauty of the art, the transcendence that's possible within the art." I think he made a conscious choice to use a lot of hand-held, sometimes shaky shots as well as the steadi- cam to give us the illusion of fast, blurry circles to keep the look off balance and chaotic. It was a risky choice as the different lenses and camera equipment gave the film a very specific look. I believe he did achieve the effect he desired as the film has a cinema-verite feel that heightens the suspense and enlivens the hallucinations. Using a bleak palette of grey and black helped to establish the murky mood and support the skillful editing. The only place we see pink is in Nina's childish ballet themed room.

Be aware this is absolutely not a ballet film for children. There is not a Sugar Plum to be seen anywhere. There are quite a few erotic sexual scenes (too many, over done and not necessary) which are not appropriate for young eyes.

This is a very ambitious, somewhat overwrought film that has overall split the film and dance community. It does make me a bit sad that the truly lofty profession of a ballet dancer is shown to be so dysfunctional and grim. The rigorous physical discipline and close to monastic life one adopts is just taken for granted to succeed through the ranks of the company. As a professional dancer, you train to become a tip top athlete at the highest level and endeavour to bring artistic brilliance and enjoyment to the audience at large.

Tchaikovsky's strains from the full-length Swan Lake support the picture all the way even as the ring tone on Nina's phone when her mother is calling and calling and calling.

Black Swan is a complicated, exhilarating and over-the-top ride that has to date garnered 12 Critics Choice nominations and 4 Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and the two starlets, Portman and Kunis.

~ The Ark Newspaper, January 2011