If torture, perfectionism, masochism and emaciated, ethereal sprites pirouetting themselves into delicate music box coffins, can become an exalted, grandiloquent mixture of horror and beauty, then Black Swan is a glorious rhapsody, a movie in which women suffer (and suffer) not only for their art, but for their gender, and all the proud, yet vulnerable complexities that frequently come with it.
At the center of this ecstatic agony is Natalie Portman’s Nina, a New York ballerina chosen to play the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a role that is indeed an honor, but also a real life method-acting nightmare. Extracting every self mutilating, starving, smothered mother psychodrama this young woman’s been living with all her life, Nina’s world turns into a kind of dementia that Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, Jacqueline Susann and, for that matter, William Castle, would cook up: Black Swan Sardonicus.
But this is a Darren Aronofsky movie -- The Wrestler goes Red Shoes -- and if one finds it hyperbolic, they should: Grandiosity literally, bleeding into a dingy subway car. There are many who find this movie preposterous, insulting even (and not at all representative of ballet), and I can understand the intense dislike. This could easily be viewed as an obvious movie, and subtly is not one of Aronofsky's strong points (nor should it have to be). But it moves so far beyond potentially trite tropes and wraps itself around its perfectionism-to-death center with such visceral ferociousness and with such poignant lyricism that it twists into a different lifeform altogether -- almost as if Aronofsky lost control of the Shock Corridor and those nymphos started running the asylum.
His (and especially Portman’s) deep understanding of often, dysmorphic female fear is so potently portrayed, that it can’t be viewed as a movie in which women simply lose. In its own bizarre way, watching Nina’s fear of failure, of success, sexuality, beauty, aging and her own hysteria, is both deeply sad and strangely noble. I felt terrible for her (as I did the “aged” Winona Ryder, so distraught about retirement from dance that she throws herself in front of a car, a potentially graceful act that ends without the dignity she probably sought. Instead, she lives in a broken body) -- and yet I wanted Nina to complete her final dance, valiantly. I wanted her to achieve the ultimate: Perfection and passion, White Swan, Black Swan, Madonna and Whore.
She and her creepy, controlling mother (a pinched faced Barbara Hershey who paints portraits only of herself) trudge through their beauty and talent with such little joy in life (Mila Kunis is the only exception of a free spirit), so when Nina gets her spotlight, the movie’s dementia had managed to worm into my blood stream. I was catching Nina’s sickness. And, perversely, enjoying it too.
And yet, even pitched at frenzied Grand Guignol, this melodrama, sometimes funny melodrama, remains both allegorical and heartbreakingly personal. As Nina unravels, we are right there with her, observing and, thanks to Portman’s powerful performance, feeling her real and imagined afflictions -- scratching, obsessive nail clipping, impossibly bent toes and then, doppelgangers, dizzying paranoia and phantasmagoria galore.
But, she is a human being after all, and a human being many of us can see ourselves in, (even if she’s lost a grip of what human even means), and so her dedication, which is very real, is staggeringly touching. She wants perfection for herself, perfection for her audience and perfection to quiet her demons. And she wants to simultaneously conquer and unleash that inspired, impious black swan inside of her. And so did I. Perhaps that’s not healthy. But the picture isn’t a warning tale, it’s not a horror movie, it’s not even a woman’s picture (I think), it’s a soul stirrer (or a soul stealer), and if you go with it, all the way down the line, you feel odd, yet recognizable emotions seeping out of your very pores. Many yearn to emerge the swan, but as Leda can attest, those birds can be monstrous.
Extended from my piece for MSN's Top Ten Movies of 2010. Black Swan topped my list. My complete list of ten is coming soon.