There has been a lot of hype surrounding Black Swan and in particular Natalie Portman’s performance in it. She plays disturbed ballet dancer Nina Sayers and fortunately she does not overact the role, which would have been easy to do. If anything, she underplays the part so that it’s not clear until the movie’s end exactly what is going in Nina’s mind. This helps achieve suspense and tension. I’m not sure it’s an oscarworthy performance though, as I did feel that her performance was greatly boosted by the film’s own tension increasing techniques; such as the powerful sharp bursts of music and the rapid cutting between shots.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is a technically brilliant ballet dancer looking for a chance to prove herself. After playing supporting roles for years, she has reached a stage where she feels like it’s her time to be in the limelight. Her ballet company reveal they are putting on a production of Swan Lake, the famous ballet where the leading dancer has to play two parts: one white good swan, and one black bad/evil swan. Her ballet instructor (Vincent Cassel) auditions her for the lead role but initially feels that although she has the technical abilities to play the White Swan part of the role, she lacks the raw edginess needed to pull off the part of The Black Swan. He sees something in her one day after class though that causes him to change his mind and he announces to everyone’s surprise that she is his choice for the role.
The story to Black Swan is a familiar one that has been done before; a young struggling dancer attempting to achieve her life’s ambition. This is not a simple success story though, as Nina’s success comes at a price. As Nina struggles to get to grips with both parts, her increasingly disturbed state is emphasised by sharp bursts of music and rapid cutting between shots which successfully builds up tension. She wants to achieve perfection and be amazing in the role, but in order to this, she has to embrace a side of herself that might have been better kept hidden.
In many ways the film’s story mimics the story of Swan Lake. Nina does not have an evil sister, but she does have another more dangerous side to her that seems to appear the more highly strung she becomes. Even in the early scenes of the the film, Nina imagines seeing another version of herself as she goes about her daily life. It could also be argued that Mila Kunis is playing the Black Swan character in the film as Nina becomes convinced that Lily (Kunis) is trying to steal her role. It’s never made fully clear whether Lily is actually trying to sabotage Nina’s part in the play, or if it is purely in Nina’s imagination.
The casting of Winona Ryder as the older dancer that Nina is basically replacing is perfect as the part rings true. Ryder herself is no longer able to play the roles that she used to in the film industry, and younger actresses like Portman are getting the notoriety that she used to have.
Black Swan is a disturbing film and could definitely be classed as a psychological thriller. There are a lot of things going on in the film where it is unclear if they are real or imagined. For example, Nina has marks on her back which get bigger and more severe as the film progresses, but then at other times they seem to have vanished completely. The film plays with the audience’s perceptions of reality. You’re never sure if what you’re being shown is what is really going on or if we are being shown what is in Nina’s disturbed mind.
Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder