Natalie Portman’s character gives new meaning to the term suffering for your art.
The word obsession can represent a multitude of things to different people. If I posed the question to one hundred random people walking the streets of South Florida, in addition to those who would ignore me, or immediately tell me to buzz off, I would probably receive some of the following answers: Obsession happens when there is something that an individual greatly desires and becomes fixated on it; it’s an overwhelming sexual yearning for a particular person; it’s a hit song by the 1980s synth pop group “Animotion” and so on and so forth. In this blogger’s opinion all of the aforementioned answers would be valid, but the distinct form of obsession this blog deals with is the kind that is examined in Darren Aronofsky’s bold new film, “Black Swan.”
The movies plot begins to unfold on a familiar note; Beth MacIntyre, the aging prima ballerina of a New York City ballet company, played by Winona Ryder (Heathers) is being replaced by the fresh faced character of Nina Sayers, portrayed in an Oscar worthy performance by the attractive and engaging Natalie Portman (Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith). The role that Portman’s character, Nina, has been cast in is that of the Swan Queen in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (The Nutcracker) iconic ballet Swan Lake. Nina is the perfect choice to play the graceful, innocent, and good natured white swan, according to Thomas, the director of the ballet company, a role in which Vincent Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve) showcases the workings of the mind of a control freak. But, he is not convinced Nina can give herself over to her inner darkness and seduce the audience into believing that she is also the embodiment of the sensual black swan. From that point on in the movie, even though the familiarity of the plot remained, the execution quickly gave way this past Friday evening as I sat riveted by what was transpiring for the remainder of the film’s 108 minute run time.
Black Swan had its world premiere as the opening film at the 67th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2010. It is the third consecutive film directed by Aronofsky to premiere at the prestigious festival, the other two were The Fountain and Mickey Rourke’s brilliant comeback movie The Wrestler. After receiving a limited release on December 3, 2010, the film was released for nationwide distribution this past Friday, December 17, 2010. At its premiere the film moved audience members to give it a rousing standing ovation. It garnered a nomination for the Golden Lion, the highest prize given to a film at the festival. It lost out to the Sofia Coppola directed movie, Somewhere, and actress Mila Kunis (That‘70s Show) deservedly received the Marcello Mastroianni Award given to the best young actor or actress for her role as Lily, in the Black Swan. Her character was the catalyst which pushes Portman’s Nina to aspire to new depths of achieving perfection.
Based on a story by Andres Heinz, who also wrote the screenplay along with Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, the fluid camera work by cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, as well as the elegant score by English composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream), the fifth consecutive time he has collaborated with Aronofsky, this psychological thriller is not to be missed. At its core it is a case study which examines a person who is spiraling downward mentally, but at the same time the individual’s obsession is desperately pushing her to try and reach for the zenith level of perfection. Although it has received a tremendous amount of critical praise, the film does have its detractors who consider it to be familiar territory done in a ‘by the book’ formulaic way, this blogger whole heartedly disagrees.
While the crux of the movie might be viewed as such, the setting, as well as the circumstances of the individual characters, is a staunch departure which keeps this film from being a ho-hum retread of previous movies that have dealt with similar themes. Portman’s character is the heart which makes the film beat; her delusional visions, frustrations, and increasingly destructive insecurities serve to move the story along to a climax that becomes more inevitable with the passing of each second of screen time. Barbara Hershey (whose long career includes Beaches and The Natural) portrays Portman’s mother, a former ballerina, who is the spring broad from where Nina’s neurotic behavior derives; not that my own mother has ever acted toward me the way Hershey does toward Nina, I nevertheless found myself feeling for Portman’s character, knowing full well that the caring, yet bullying, and ultimately disturbing persona presented by her mother would only serve as a detriment to someone already under extreme pressure to not only meet expectations, but surpass them. I feel to elaborate on some of the things that transpire between the two characters would only serve as a spoiler, and reduce the impact of the film for you, so I’ll leave the makeup of their relationship at that. Even when Nina leaves her Manhattan apartment, away from her mother’s ever watchful eyes, she is confronted at work by the ballet company’s competitive new addition, the uninhibited Lily, who opens Nina’s eyes to the fact that the road to achieving one’s dreams is filled with stark reality and not fantastical fiction which encompasses beauty and peace.
The germ of the idea which led to the movie began when Darren Aronofsky’s sister studied ballet at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. He first hired professional screenwriters to rework a screenplay titled The Understudy, which dealt with the lives of off-Broadway actors and the idea of those people being haunted by doppelgangers. While engaged in the writing process, he looked to novellas such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double, and movies like the 1950, Bette Davis classic film All About Eve, as well as Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological thriller The Tenant. In addition, he sat through various productions of Swan Lake, where he began to make the connections in his script that defined the attributes encompassed in the relationship between the white and black swans. Aronofsky’s movie is a take on an old ballet, but the way it is executed with such unyielding passion, as well as hardcore brutality in certain parts, makes it fresh, where in the hands of a less capable director it could have come across as very stale. Instead, we, as the audience, are made to intake a volatile cocktail that’s mixed with sexuality, surrealism, and viciousness. If you occasionally like to take a spellbinding, psychological roller coaster ride when it comes to viewing movies, Black Swan delivers.