E: This is one campy head trip of a movie. I’m not going to lie, I’m still not sure what to make of it, or how much I liked it. In fact, I’d have an easier time recommending the movie to horror fans than a regular Oscar viewer. Yet this story of a ballerina who gives her all – perhaps too much – to live a famous role exerts a strange fascination. And if nothing else, it’s sure enough not boring.
Prim, repressed perfectionist Nina Sayers sleeps in a fluffy pink bedroom, but as her cracked toes and aching muscles attest, she’s a strange hybrid; a tender child and tough cookie all at once. She’s a dancer, and this movie will give you a better idea of the devotion that requires. She’s stressed and timorous, deeply ambitious to leave the soloist’s dressing room and become a principal dancer. She holds herself apart from her gossiping, more overtly sexual colleagues; she wants to swaddle the world in candy pink. It should be glamorous, romantic, pristine, perfect.
Her mother Erica, a former dancer, follows her daughter’s life to the tiniest detail. She entombs her daughter in that fluffy bedroom, and tucks her in at night to the sounds of a tinkling music box – the jewelry box kind with the tiny twirling ballerina. Erica forces cheer from her daughter, constantly corrects and advises and guilts her, plying Nina with a cake larger than her own torso and then warning her against weight gain. Is it any wonder the girl’s bulimic? Nina, however, must face down bigger challenges than a little girl’s fantasy birthday cake. No: Beth, the company’s prima ballerina, is forced to retire by their company’s creative director Thomas, and Nina wants to audition for the role of the Swan Queen. The role is iconic but also requires a tremendous acting stretch; Odette, the white swan, charms with her pure passion, while Odile, her doppleganger, seduces with dark confidence. Nina is a technical dancer. She can dance Odette because she is Odette, but Odile, the titular black swan? Not so much.
Introduce into the mix creative director Thomas (who has definite ideas about appropriate working relationships), intra-company politics, Beth becoming dangerously unhinged, and Lilly, a free spirited dancer from California, and Nina’s safe little world starts to tilt. It’s not long before the mirrors she’s surrounded by start reflecting things that aren’t real. Will they let her perform the role? Can she do it if they give her the chance? And what will it cost her if she does? Which of her fears – and joys – are real, and which are imaginary?
I love naturalistic acting, and that this is not. There are lovely touches here – Nina’s dirty little habit I won’t spoil, for one. There’s a quietly instructive scene where Thomas arrives to watch a rehearsal and the dancers wordlessly shuck their leg warmers and skirts so he can see the lines of their bodies unimpeded. I go back and forth between liking the movie and not. And I’m not sure I have any idea what actually happened. I certainly enjoyed the movie while it was happening, but it didn’t haunt me as Aronofsky’s pantheon of heartbreaking losers has in the past. Quiz show aspirant Sara and son Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and their friend and partner in crime Tyrone; Randy the Wrestler, Stephanie his estranged daughter and Cassidy the stripper. What Aronofsky excels at is creating moments that ought to be unbearably sad, but instead are full of such clarity, such realism, such clear eyed empathy, that even through the sorrow of people destroying themselves, you’re left with compassion and grateful understanding. You see why they’ve taken the path that they do. He has a towering genius for human connection, for grace.
Which begs the question: do I really feel like I know Nina, like I felt the events of the film with Nina? Yes and no. The movie is visceral. You feel her constraints, her discipline, her ambitions. Her theater is cold and claustrophobic; she’s always watched, always judged on how well she approaches an impossible standard. It’s a dizzying, insular world. But some of the imagery used to detail Nina’s descent to find her own dark side, her own confidence, seemed cliche to me. All those mirrors, with the distortion and refraction. Nina wears white; Lilly wears black. Does she need to kill Odette to become Odile? It’s a classical question, surely, but the way it plays out here, it seems more than a bit overwrought.
And yet, I have to respect what Portman has achieved here. The plain fact that she’s able to pass as a dancer is astounding; the level of preparation and commitment it took to essentially remake her body, to learn as an adult – well, it’s pretty astounding. The muscle memory involved in ballet is just beyond conceiving to anyone outside of that world. Portman is poised to claim the best actress title, which is a little bit fitting, all things considered, for a film about ambition and perfectionism and total devotion to one’s Art. I expected a costume nomination for the glorious costumes (somewhat annoyingly attributed to the film’s costume designer instead of the ballet designers who made them) which didn’t play out, and there was question of an original screenplay nod which also failed to materialize. And let’s not even get started on Barbara Hershey as mom Erica, who is a chilling, chilling beast. The scene with that cake is so perfectly calibrated, it’s crazy, and it’s unfortunate she (and costar Mila Kunis, who was nominated by SAG and the HFPA) failed to get any Academy love. Best Picture, Best Director, Actress, Cinematography and Film Editing are nothing to laugh at, however. Only in Actress does the film have a chance, but happily for those involved, that one nomination should bear real fruit. Annette Bening seems to have lost considerable steam. And Natalie Portman – who also got a fiance (choreographer/actor Benjamin Millipied) and a baby out of the deal – has worked ferociously for all of the blessing (Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA) that continue to come her way.
Darren Aronofsky’s films usually leave me gutted, hollowed out by a catharsis. They possess my imagination. Black Swan, his most commercially successful, the film that earned him his first Oscar nomination, swirled around me pleasantly, but it didn’t leave me feeling wrung out. What I admire most about his earlier films is that they forced me, through their darkest moments, to keep my eyes trained on the screen. Even with so much to approve, this time, I hid my face in my hands.