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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Black Swan’ dives into madness

Published: January 21, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

“I just want to be perfect,” ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) tells the director of her ballet company. In a way, director Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” achieves the off-kilter perfection Nina desperately craves through its combination of artful melodrama and strong visual style.

“Black Swan” centers on Nina, a quiet young woman who has spent her life living and breathing ballet. What little free time she has is spent at home with her overbearing and severe mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself. Nina has already achieved a reputation for technical proficiency onstage and frigidity offstage by the start of the film.

She receives her chance at stardom when the company director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), fires the company’s lead performer, Beth (Winona Ryder), and chooses Nina to star in his production of “Swan Lake.” Thomas envisions a production in which the virginal White Swan and the duplicitous Black Swan are both played by Nina, requiring her to somehow acquire a sensuality and liveliness she lacks.

The pressure of the role soon gets to her. Thomas berates her constantly, increasingly focusing his attention on the newest member of the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas praises for her loose, sensual dancing—“she’s not faking it,” he tells Nina. To compensate, Nina attempts to free her own sexuality through partying, drugs and sex, which begins to weaken her own grasp on reality. She begins to suspect that both Lily and her mother are conspiring against her, and she succumbs to her own delusions, leading to an explosive third act.

Director Aronofsky stalks Nina through the twisting, labyrinthine structures of her increasingly paranoid mind, showing us the world only as Nina sees it—full of shadows and unexplained visions. Nothing we see can be trusted. And it’s no wonder she feels like she’s being watched, as Aronofsky’s camera menacingly observes her both on and off the stage, frequently focusing its gaze squarely on Nina’s face, capturing her frightened expressions.

What makes “Black Swan” such a superb film is the way in which its narrative operates on so many levels, moving beyond the psychological thriller tag that has been affixed to it.

On one level, it acts as a film about showbiz along the lines of “All About Eve.” Nina replaces Beth and in turn fears that she will be replaced by Lily. In making the three interchangeable, Nina loses recognition as an individual, feeding her paranoia that she will become nothing. Aronofsky adds a level of tension to this by casting Ryder as Beth, since Ryder herself has largely been confined to supporting roles in recent years as actresses like Portman have risen to prominence.

On another level, “Black Swan” delights in toying with identity. As Nina becomes increasingly delusional, she conflates her own image with that of Lily, fleetingly seeing her own face on Lily’s body. In seeing herself in Lily, Nina is almost forced into confronting her true nature, something that she violently resists. This true nature, in turn, possesses its own duality, consisting of both the virginal and seductive traits that characterize her roles in “Swan Lake.”

To illustrate these points, Aronofsky occasionally relies on conventions associated with the horror genre, which only increases the film’s tensions, making Nina’s breaks from reality even more terrifying. Sometimes this devolves into camp, but never unintention high-teens to the low 30s. Conditions, however, were actually worse than they appeared. The snow became slushy; at one point it rained and snowed while we were on the trail, soaking the bulk of our equipment and eventually freezing it. This made even the simple task of tying shoe laces incredibly difficult. Wet conditions also made it harder to stay warm; I actually developed very early-stage hypothermia at one point.

When most people go skiing or are presented with the rare opportunity to go dog sledding, they do so when conditions are ideal. The members of my expedition were not so fortunate. We had to keep going, pushing and pulling alongside our dogs through the howling wind, pouring rain and slushy snow that threatened to freeze our sleds in place. On our last day of travel, we had to push 10 miles to get home, most of it after sunset.

Although conditions were rough, this expedition was one of the greatest experiences of my life. At certain times the weather would break and we would ski for miles along endless lakes lined with forests that seemed frozen in time. One day, while I was driving one of the dogsleds, the conditions were so good and the dogs were running so well that it was as if I were sailing across the frozen lake as the chilled wind hit my face and filled my lungs.

Outward Bound is a strenuous wilderness survival program but it is also a time for deep reflection and self-discovery. I have long had issues with self-confidence, so going on this expedition and previous expeditions has reinvigorated my spirit. I feel taller, stronger and bolder. As I arrived back on campus and walked the familiar paths, I felt a sense of confidence that I have not felt for quite some time.

Ultimately, though, what I have really brought with me from my travels are the memories. They come and go in a constant stream of thoughts and images like all memories do, as if it were a baseball game or a trip to the grocery store. I do not know what surprises and challenges this semester will hold, but I know that the strength and grit that I demonstrated in the wilderness will help me meet them. ally so—there are moments when the film wants you to laugh, refusing to succumb to the stiffness that plagues Nina.

Of course, much has been said about Natalie Portman’s no-holds-barred portrayal of Nina, which easily ranks among the best performances of the year. Though she has almost always turned in solid work (barring a “Star Wars” or three), Aronofsky captures something darker that audiences really haven’t seen in her before.

Portman receives stellar support from Hershey, an always consummate actress who skillfully melds the scary, sympathetic and camp aspects of her character; from Kunis, who injects her Lily with more than simple sex appeal; and Cassel, who imbues the lecherous Thomas with a likability he may have otherwise lacked.

Ultimately, however, this is Aronofsky’s show, as “Black Swan” would be a different film without the audacity of his directorial vision. The film’s success is thus especially satisfying, considering that its current take at the box office almost doubles that of his first four films—including “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for a Dream”—combined, indicating an increased openness by audiences for his work.

And that, as Nina might observe, is pretty perfect.