by Tony Dayoub
I have never been one attracted to Natalie Portman much past her obvious physical beauty. With the exception of early turns in The Professional (aka Léon) and Beautiful Girls, her performance style has always struck me as perfect to the point of being brittle. So Darren Aronofsky's use of her in Black Swan stands out as an astute bit of exploitation, mining Portman's own flaws to inform her role as an overambitious ballerina. Indeed, one could apply this to the entire ensemble cast of this thriller mashing up the ballet movie with the psychological horror film.
Portman's ballerina is a rising ingenue given the role of the White and Black Swan in Swan Lake. But her director, Vincent Cassel (Mesrine: Killer Instinct), is open about his doubts that she can pull it off; she is technically adept enough to pull off the role of the perfect White Swan, yet lacks the passion which characterizes the darker Black Swan. This puts her in competition with new dancer, Mila Kunis (The Book of Eli), whose enthusiasm is infectious... in an almost literal sense it turns out. Since Kunis joined the troupe, Portman catches glimpses of herself everywhere she goes, a double sometimes reflected even in Kunis' visage.
The idea of a doppelganger representing a protagonist's break from reality and a sort of scapegoat to which she can attach all of her troubles recalls the Edgar Allan Poe story, "William Wilson" and Louis Malle's creepy 1969 adaptation of it for a segment in Histoires Extraordinaires. On film, the icily handsome Alain Delon plays the immoral Wilson and his identically named double, a conscientious man who seems to exist merely to push the evil Wilson's acts out into the open. Just as Wilson blames his double for the scrapes he gets himself into, Portman's ingénue resists unleashing her repressed sexuality by imagining a dark twin which does it for her. The seductive Kunis seems to be the catalyst for the birth of this second persona, with pills and sex blurring the lines for Portman and allowing her to cast Kunis as her twisted alter ego. Portman even imagines making love to herself during a steamy erotic encounter with Kunis, who quickly becomes an unwitting catch-all for Portman's repressed desires and resentments.
Roman Polanski explored sexual repression as the cause of a personality schism in Repulsion (1965), where he employed the chilly beauty of Catherine Deneuve as a distancing device allowing the viewer to coldly witness her spiral downwards into insanity. In Black Swan, Aronofsky alternately keeps us at arm's length from Portman and places us within her head. While she pirouettes her way through practice, DP Matthew Libatique whirls the camera exhiliratingly, sweeping us away and allowing us to experience the allure this painfully exacting art form holds for our heroine. Other times, we are allowed to see the obsession creeping into Portman's manic behavior, as the physical and mental demands of her rise to stardom start manifesting themselves in bizarre scars on her back which hint at a history of cutting. One scene, in which Portman enters the walk-up she shares with her mother (Barbara Hershey) only to find a roomful of abstracted portraits laughing at her is the most pointed evocation of Polanski's film, recalling the scene in which Deneuve is tormented by arms reaching out to her from her own apartment's walls.
But it is perhaps the most famous ballet film of all which serves as the greatest thematic influence to Black Swan. Its edgy take on one dancer's obsessive pursuit of perfection culminates in an impressionistic climax, which rivals The Red Shoes' emotional denouement, if not in romantic tragedy then at least in high-strung tension. In one respect, I'm surprised to admit it even surpasses it. Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes reaches its emotional crescendo midway through the film during Moira Shearer's 20-minute nightmarish dance sequence, leaving the film's end to feel merely anguished. Black Swan hits its most suspenseful moment in its finale, when Swan Lake is finally enacted. The effect is that of a catharsis which the viewer has sought through much of its anxiety-ridden story, leaving one breathless as the credits start to roll.
Black Swan opens in limited release on Friday, December 3rd.