Black Swan – 2010
This was another movie about ballet, following other Best Picture nominees such as 1948’s The Red Shoes, and 1977’s The Turning Point. What sets this one apart is that it is a psychological horror film. Most of the camera work is hand-held, making if feel almost like you are a participant in the disturbing story rather than an observer. The main protagonist is Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman. She is a ballerina who dances with a prestigious company in New York who is opening their new season with Swan Lake.
When encountering ballet, it seems to me that Swan Lake is widely considered the pinnacle of the craft. It embodies the art form more completely than any other production. It is implied that the dancer playing the role of the Swan Queen must have the ability to sacrifice her soul to the part to achieve artistic perfection. Certainly this is the attitude of Nina when she is cast in the demanding role.
The problem is that she is mentally unbalanced to begin with, and it is implied that it is her obsessive desire for supreme perfection as a dancer, coupled with a healthy dose of bulimia, which is the cause of her emotional and mental instability. Her compulsive need to achieve this perfection drives her to lose her hold on reality. She begins to have terrifying hallucinations, bouts of extreme paranoia, and intense waking dreams of a very sexual nature. Aside from the thrashed feet from the toe dancing and the bulimic vomiting, she also has to deal with a neurotic habit of scratching the back of her shoulder bloody without remembering having done so.
Her mother, Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, is the stereotypical mother of the ballerina. She could have been a star in her youth, but she gave up her career as a dancer to have her daughter. So now she pushes her daughter to extremes to reach the heights she never achieved. The sexual predator disguised as the company’s director, Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, forces himself on her, using the excuse that he is trying to get her to let go of her sexual inhibitions in order to truly embody the part of the Swan Queen.
And then there is the rival dancer, Nina’s understudy, Lilly, played by Mila Kunis. Apparently, Nina has the emotional fragility to play the White Swan, but lacks the innate wildness to play the Black Swan, both of which must be portrayed by the same ballerina. But Lilly is a free spirit. She is not as perfect a dancer as Nina, but she has the emotionally uninhibited sexual energy Leroy wants in the persona of the Black Swan. And lest I forget, Winona Ryder played the part of Beth, the member of the dance company who was getting too old to dance, and after being forced out of the company, threw herself in front of a car.
The climax of the drama wasn’t so much horror as it was suspense. On opening night, Nina’s paranoid hallucinations become homicidal. Thinking that Lilly is trying to become her and take her place in the show, she fights with her, breaking a mirror in the process. She uses a jagged shard of glass to stab the other girl to death and hides her body. But then we are thrown for a loop when Lilly shows up at her dressing room door to congratulate her on her perfect performance in the first half of the show.
I thought that she had mistaken her mother for Lilly and murdered her instead, but when she checks on the body, there is nothing there. The mirror is still broken. It turns out that she stabbed herself, murdering not Lilly or her mother, but the part of her own emotional psyche that was holding her back from performing the part of the Black Swan, thus enabling her to dance the part perfectly. After performing the second half of the ballet flawlessly, she dies from a real stab wound. Apparently she danced the part of the Black Swan with a piece of broken glass in her abdomen. Realistic? No. But it made for interesting psychological drama.
I honestly don’t know much about ballet. I wouldn’t know the difference between good ballet and great ballet. To me, they both look pretty much the same. But after watching so many movies that were nominated for Best Picture, I have a pretty good eye for acting, and Portman really delivered. She takes you on a journey through Nina’s madness. She has a very expressive face and she did a great job with the complex emotions that the role demanded. In fact, Portman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the part, and I daresay she deserved it.
It is interesting to note that in my research, I learned that though both Portman and Kunis spent six months before filming taking ballet classes, and many people believed that the two did their own dancing for the movie, the real dancing was done by dance doubles, Sarah Lane, Maria Riccetto, and Kimberly Prosa.