FILM REVIEW Dark and perfect

Natalie Portman’s obsession with perfection collides with dangerous levels of Mila Kunis’ sassiness in Black Swan

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Stepping through her shadow: Natalie Portman clears the way for her darker side in Black Swan.
Courtesy of sony pictures classics

Black Swan

Directed By Darren Aronofsky

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Rated R, now playing

Darren Aronofsky is a director who seems to love to explore the dark side of human nature, and there’s a whole lot of that to explore. It’s easy for us to pawn off our dark side on the orcs and demons in stories, and on some deeper level it probably makes us feel better about ourselves. But every villain, monster, and atrocious real-world act in our recorded history was the creation of human beings.

Aronofsky’s latest effort, Black Swan, is a divisive film. To some, it’s a shady, perhaps even tawdry Oscar wannabe, rolling onto the scene at the end of the year with a wave of fanfare and an enigmatic, cryptic trailer. It’s when the movie is viewed through the lens of how flawed an individual can be that the film shows how brilliant it actually is. Ballet is not necessarily the focal point here, it’s merely the vehicle for a character study. This is a movie about insanity and perfection, and how the two frequently go hand-in-webbed-hand.

Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a rising ballet star working for an unnamed ballet company in New York. She is determined to land the starring role — that of both the Swan Queen and the nefarious Black Swan — in a major production of Swan Lake, and yet she faces difficulties. A sheltered lass brimming with innocence, she has trouble bringing out the dark, seductive ferocity necessary to play the black swan. As a result, she faces withering scrutiny from Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the womanizing, strict director of the ballet company. While he demands great things out of Nina and pushes her to greater heights, his character is like that of a domineering father, always finding ways to deflate the ego of his daughters in order to maintain control over them.

Nina must also deal with her extremely controlling single mother (Barbara Hershey), who involves herself in every aspect of Nina’s life to the point of having an emotional iron grip on her. This leaves her with no particularly kind role-models to look up to; there is no real warmth in her existence. Her life consists of training, being a good daughter, and not having very much fun. Perhaps most dangerous of all to Nina’s sense of stability is competition from Lily (Mila Kunis). A tornado of outgoing sexual lightning, Lily is everything that good-girl Nina is not, and a shoe-in for the Black Swan role that Nina is so obsessive about landing. From there, Nina begins to spiral out of control even as she and Lily seemingly become two peas in a pod. The relationship between Nina and Lily brings back memories of the Buffy/Faith dynamic in the Buffy TV series, only here it’s difficult to tell who is right or wrong.

This movie is dark. Very dark. There are some truly cringe-worthy scenes, especially one involving a hangnail. Much of the movie’s more disturbing imagery is a by-product of Nina’s mind; after a certain point, the audience finds itself wondering how much of the story is real and how much is an illusion. The film is in many ways a cautionary tale against getting too caught up in our obsessive pursuits, even that of success.

Despite the general dark motif at work here, the movie also has a good deal of comedic value. Comedic value, you ask? The sheer ridiculousness of many of the scenes invites the audience to laugh; problem is, most of the audience probably doesn’t realize they’re allowed to. There are sequences in this movie that are so over the top that one has to wonder if they were intentional. This humor isn’t without consequence, however. It’s easy for Thomas’ overtures at Nina to come off as borderline comical; however, this is accompanied by the notion that the man is sexually harassing his young charges. Even when the movie is funny, there is an accompanying dose of darkness.

This movie has a great deal in common with both The Wrestler (2008) and Fight Club (1999). This is a good thing — there are far worse sources to draw from than those two brilliant movies. It parallels Fight Club as a story with a city-dwelling, unreliable narrator — as she makes her way in the world, she becomes increasingly undone. Both movies feature an unhealthy amount of self-inflicted physical abuse by their protagonist as they plummet along a downward spiral.

Meanwhile, The Wrestler is a story about an aging wrestler at the twilight of his career; he doesn’t know how to do much else. He wants to hold on to his past glory at any cost to his own well-being. Black Swan is a story of a young competitor near the dawn of her career who wants to achieve future glory at any cost to her own well-being. Both stories are gritty and filled with the harshness of reality. An over-the-shoulder, handheld camera method of filming differentiates them from most other movies and gives them a documentary style feeling. On some level, the duality of these two movies is a demonstration of how pro wrestling, ballet, and other performance arts aren’t too different from one another. A lengthy, high-profile championship match and a performance of Swan Lake both come with similar anxieties and rigors of training and practice. The main characters have a connection, as well. While Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler is physically broken, Nina is mentally broken. While Randy hangs on to his wrestling persona to feel relevant, Nina is confronted by her shadow self head-on.

At the end of the day, this movie is really about a completely unhinged girl’s quixotic quest to be, in her own words, perfect. It is both beautiful and disturbing, comedic and tragic. It’s unique, intelligent, and engaging. It has enough twists and turns to keep viewers talking about it long after it ends. The movie manages to be the very thing that the main character so strives for: perfect.