Credit – Darren Macey
In central European folklore, to see ones own doppelganger is an omen of death. Doppelgangers stalk through Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a film singularly haunted by questions of identity. What, precisely, makes you who you are and not somebody else?
The meat of the film is an heroic performance from Natalie Portman, who portrays a woman not simply obsessed by her art, but literally consumed by it. Her Nina Sayers is a ballerina at a top flight New York company. We don’t know much about her as a person; Portman brings an otherworldly emptiness to Nina’s early scenes. We sense that dance is literally the only thing in her life. Nina lives in a claustrophobic apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey in a perfectly terrifying performance) who was a dancer once and seems to have sublimated her daughter’s life into a continuation of her own ambitions. Their relationship is unsettling; the total lack of privacy and normal boundries feels like an incestious violation. Here is a person not raised, but sculpted.
The plot follows the outlines of a fairly typical show business drama; Nina wants to land the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. She is perfect for the White Swan, but is too mechanical and passionless to play her evil twin the Black Swan. Nina’s doppelganger is Lily (Mila Kunis), the new girl in the company who is as impulsive and unhinged as Nina is staid. The director of the company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) tells Nina that he is casting Lily. Cassel plays Leroy with a sleazy, malignant charm. He’s the sort of man who loves women in the way that others love high performance automobiles. He has recently cast aside last years model (Winona Ryder) and looks to trade in for Nina. When she spurns his advances by biting him, he sees the dark spark in her that he is looking for and casts her as the Swan Queen.
Lily presents Nina with an existensial challenge- she is self possessed, social, and sexually mature, and Nina is none of these things. Mila Kunis turns in a wonderful performance as Lily, exuding effortlessness and confidence with just a touch of malice. The conflict between the two is not good vs. evil, but rather id vs. ego. As Nina begins to peel back her facade, her mind unravels. At this point the film begins to take on the logic of a dream. No other director is better than Aronofsky at making the audience feel like they’re coming unglued. Between his creepy but beautiful images and Portman’s eerie performance, this film is the best cinematic descent into madness I’ve ever seen. We are reminded of Aronofsky’s Pi and The Wrestler, both also about all consuming obsessions.
The surreal final act of the film, centered around Nina’s debut performance of Swan Lake, is a tour de force. Without the steadily building tension of the rest of the film it might feel forced or melodramatic, but instead feels like a natural and inevitable climax. The film hurtles towards it with the momentum of a freight train and doesn’t let up until the last moment.
Ballet is the perfect setting for this story, because it is such a strange and extreme world. In no other artistic discipline does the artist so completely transform their body. Women are the celebrated stars, but they are totally dominated by men, shaped into instruments and conducted like a symphony. As choreographer George Balanchine said “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.”
There is no middle ground; it’s perfection or death. For Nina Sayers, it’s both.
(c) Colin Newman All rights reserved.