Home > Movie Reviews > Mila Kunis’ celebrity doppelganger is Natalie Portman: On ‘were-swans’ in “Black Swan”

Mila Kunis’ celebrity doppelganger is Natalie Portman: On ‘were-swans’ in “Black Swan”

I’ve always viewed Natalie Portman as sort of a young actress (she was Queen Amidala, after all).  Thus, I was surprised to see the line outside the “Black Swan” theater filled mostly with older patrons; I’m pretty sure Orion and I were the youngest people in the audience.  Once the film began, however, I realized why this was. “Black Swan” tells the story of a dancer reaching for the role of Swan Queen in the production, “Swan Lake”.  There is a white swan and a black swan, two entirely different personas, typically danced by a single ballerina.  The struggle to get the role, and to get it right, consumes the audience: Darron Aronofsky’s vision was extremely dark, filled with mature madness, and utterly engrossing.  I’m pretty sure I’ve developed some stress ulcers just from watching the movie.

Anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s work (such as “Requiem for a Dream”) will understand that his technique is designed to pull the audience into a destructive spiral, where boundaries of reality and hallucination blur.  In “Black Swan”, this is surely the case: we are bombarded with Portman’s heavy breathing, from fear or from exertion; we are constantly following her, one step behind, as if we are her stalkers.  Portman portrays Nina Sayers, prima ballerina, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, while Mila Kunis is her alternate, seductive and potentially lethal Lily.  Vincent Cassel (Vinz from “La Haine”, if anyone had French class with me in high school) stars as their mad/brilliant director, who simultaneously comes on to and pushes Nina to extremes.

There has been talk of Portman’s nominations for an Oscar for her role (USA Today: “Portman stretches out in ‘Swan,’ could reach an Oscar”), and I must say that it is her superb acting that drives the movie forward.  She looks constantly terrified, on the verge of tears, and yet when she embraces the ego of the Black Swan, she is terrifying, proudly arching her head over the other dancers in the company, dominating effortlessly.  Mila Kunis does a fine job as well, playing a spunky Lily, voicing the audience’s thoughts as she tells Nina, “You really need to relax.”

I’m still not sure how I feel about this film.  It certainly pushes to the edge, perhaps over the edge; but is this a good thing?  And was it worthwhile or well done?  There is a ton of sexual tension in this movie (of which I’m not sure most was necessary) as well as a ton of claustrophobic feelings – everyone feels too close, all the girls are squeezed in together, gossiping in malicious whispers.  We follow Nina’s dancing zoomed in close to her face, so that the choreography is lost in a blur of arms.  There are too many gruesome scenes to recount – in the preview, we see a red-eyed Portman pull a feather from a rash on her back, trembling and holding back tears; in the movie, we see much worse: fingers are shattered, bones are snapped, skin is ripped off.

I understand this brutality is juxtaposed to the truly brutal life dancers live; when we see Nina’s toes, her feet carefully bound in ballet shoes, we wince just as much as seeing people stab each other.  When Nina visits what appears to be a sports-doctor, her stretching and checkup are horrifying; her bones jut out to the point that even moving seems agony.  Again, this is reminiscent of “Requiem for a Dream” – I read somewhere that Aronofsky is obsessed with self destruction, and here, dancers force their bodies to do inhuman acts; it should be clever, but think about it, we’re talking about ballet here, not drug-abusing teenagers.  To me, Aronofsky’s setting is using ballet is an excuse for the employment of distracting beauty.

Everyone in this movie looks similar somehow – Nina, her mother, and Lily all share brown hair of similar lengths, and when Nina begins seeing people who aren’t there, we’re not quite sure who we’re seeing.  Aronofsky described the movie as being about ‘were-swans’ – like werewolves, but with swans.  This dark description is apt for the movie’s characters, and each character has a shadow about them.

Overall – there’s no doubt that the film is powerful.  After the movie, people around us complained of headaches, stress, and overall unpleasant emotion.  But to affect with such potency is magnificent, and afterwards, I found myself feeling dizzy, walking with a sense of ultra-sensitivity and ambivalence, continually spacing out and thinking about the film.  I felt like I was having a strange out-of-body experience, which was weird but cool.

Best regards,

Apple

New Yorker Review: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2010/12/06/101206crci_cinema_denby

USA Today Review: http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2010-12-03-natalie03_CV_N.htm

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