Art is Pain

Black SwanLike many little girls, I wanted to be a ballerina. Effortlessly graceful and luminous in their frothy tutus and pretty pink, ribboned slippers, ballerinas were the epitome of beautiful to me.

Over the years, a growing awareness of my own lack of talent and grace disavowed me of the notion that I could be the next Anna Pavlova or Karen Kain. Still, I’ve always been enchanted by the beauty of ballet.

For this reason, I was drawn to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a young woman struggling with the demands of a career on the stage. More than this, however, Nina struggles with the breakdown of her own fragile psyche. The stress of winning the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake threatens to tear her apart. The director of the company, Tomas (Vincent Cassel) wants to strip down the famous ballet and while he feels that Nina has the skill and the innocence to tackle the part of the white swan (Odette), he has his doubts about her ability to lose herself in the passion and drama of the black swan (Odile).

Determined to prove herself, Nina embarks on a journey that ultimately threatens her sanity. It also tests the viewer, jumping from delusion to reality, leaving a string of questions about what was real and what was in Nina’s broken mind. Portman is a revelation here, particularly since I was not much of a fan beforehand. She plays Nina with a sort of escalating tension, and a broken spirit, and it is both a disturbing and fascinating performance. Mila Kunis, known primarily from her role as Jackie on television’s That 70’s Show is superb as Nina’s Eve Harrington, and Barbara Hershey (the ill-fated Hillary from Beaches) gives a chilling performance as Nina’s mother. Winona Ryder rounds out the cast in a cameo as Beth, a washed up dancer who is slated to retire at the end of the season.

In the end, however, this film rests on Natalie Portman’s ability to convince the audience of Nina’s downward spiral and to pull us in to the increasingly delusional world she lives in. If you are at all familiar with the end of Swan Lake, Nina’s fate is unsurprising, but I left the theatre with more questions than answers, and two days later, I have not stopped thinking about all the twists and turns that the movie took. Black Swan is demanding, as is ballet.

Perhaps it’s for the best that I do not have a graceful bone in my body.


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