Thursday, May 5, 2011

Black Swan - The horror of perfection

The pursuit of perfection has never been so scary. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a sometimes over the top, yet always attention grabbing take on the toll that, honing of talent to its ultimate level, might take on a person's psyche. A ballet company in New York city is the stage and the focus is on its central ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She has replaced the long time central dancer Beth, portrayed hauntingly by Winona Ryder, to play the lead role of the twin swans in a new stripped down, visceral production of Tchaikovsky's classic 'Swan Lake'.

This is the opportunity Nina has been waiting for her whole life. Living a claustrophobic life in a small apartment with an overbearing mother who is a former corps de ballet dancer, played by Barbara Hershey, Nina had been honing her craft to perfection except for one vital overlook, the savoring of the many experiences of life, so important for her art. Life means the company's grueling hours and practice, a home where the child in her is preserved in the stuffed animals and the pink of her room and the subway commute in between.  The company's director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is quick to point that though perfect as the virginal white swan Odette, Nina would have a hard time bringing the seductive, alluring evil black swan, Odile to life. She has the technique down pat, now she needs to feel the emotions.

There is then the new import from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis) who is the antithesis of all Nina represents. She would be a perfect Black swan, fearless, confident, the joy of experiencing life writ on her face. She is the understudy. The pressure to perfect the role, feel it, begins Nina's spiraling to madness. The lines between reality and role play blurs. Trapped inside the sweet, unsure, dominated Nina, the black swan flutters to life. The dark side emerges leading us through a maze where Nina rebels, experiences pleasures of the flesh, lives life a little, hallucinates her doppelganger, before envy and insecurity threaten to kill the white swan in her forever.

Though set in the world of ballet, the subject could find any profession, especially in the performing or athletic world where competition reigns and age is a bar, and be as effective. In order to perfect her craft, Nina loses herself in ballet. A world where it takes years and many injuries to hone one's talent and reach the coveted position only to have it taken away all too soon at the hands of age or competition. It is merciless and we see it in Beth's rude dismissal and her tragedy. Nina is headed in that direction. She sees it and yet cannot stop her own descent into madness, in trying to possess her character.

There is a sense of claustrophobia running through the film. It is in the cameras that focus on Nina's face and actions, not wanting us to miss a detail of her change. It is present in her daily commute, the camera always looking over her shoulder. It is dominant in her home and in the behavior of her mother. Mummy's little girl. Mummy cuts her nails, mummy watches over her in her sleep. Mummy is always there, smothering. Think 'Carrie'. Their bond is a testament how Nina never had a chance to grow her own wings. It is also present in the crammed spaces of the company studio and the domination and manipulation of her director, Thomas, in order to extract the perfect Odile out of a frigid Nina.

Natalie Portman must have waited all these years to showcase her abilities as an actress. The achingly lovely child artist turned haunting beauty, has shown sparks in 'Anywhere but here', 'Closer' and other titles. But this was the role she could sink her teeth and psyche into. The sweet girl pushed over the edge by her own ambition and insecurity and the swift descent into paranoia is captured in closeups and mid shots. There is no room for error here. Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel are all highly effective in their roles and lend able support to a downward spiraling Nina.

As a director, Aronofsky has always pushed his characters to their darkest limits. His previous work 'The Wrestler' almost acts as a companion piece to 'Black Swan'. Both movies have the leads pushing themselves beyond human limits perfecting their art and then some. The dark recesses of the mind are what Aronofsky loves playing with. Its capacity to be driven to delusions and hallucinations through inner turmoil compounded by external factors was as evident in 'Requiem for a dream' as in 'Black Swan'. By the end, we are no longer sure of what we see. Is it real or are we a part of Nina's elaborate hallucinations. The scope of a movie like this is in being anything but subtle. Staged in the ballet world, notorious for its fierce competitiveness and arduous work, Aronofsky,  reaching into the locked dark side of Nina, takes us into semi horror mode as the demons unleash. It is somewhat over the top and to some  might appear cheesy, but it works, aided by some marvelous camera work and extremely gritty cinematography.

The closing line of the film has its lead mouthing 'I felt it and it was perfect'. But what a journey to have such perfection and at what cost. Treat it as a part horror flick, the study of the formation of paranoia, but what I take with me is the hidden price of perfection, of becoming a part, which is a side effect common to many top players of the performance world. When does reality blur into role playing and how deep should performers make that connect with their character. Add to it cutthroat competition and obvious manipulation, isn't Nina's shoes easy to fill? And that for me, is the real horror.

Available on DVD
Oscar award winner 2010 for Best Actress in a lead role
Originally released in 2010

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