Last Saturday felt a bit strange. Instead of my usual talks or concerts, I went to a movie theatre. After some initial hiccups, I was in time for the opening film of the 2010 Venice Film Festival, Darren Aronsky's The Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis.
It was a psychological drama. The film opens with a ballet rehearsal. Thomas Leroy ( Vincent Cassel) was trying to select a female dancer to play the Swan Queen, who would dance both as the White Swan and the Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake to premiere in New York. Nina Sayers (Oscar winning best actress Natalie Portman) danced a perfectly graceful, elegant and innocent White Swan and was then asked to dance a sensuous, cunning and evil Black Swan. She failed. Thomas said she was too rigidly perfectionist. She lacked the Black Swan's passion and sensuous abandon. She tried again and again, but somehow was still too controlled. She was told she wouldn't be given the role of the Black Swan. She returned home disconsolate and was seen being welcomed by his solicitously controlling mother Erica (played by Babarba Hershey), a failed ballerina who gave up her career to have her and who meticulously micro-managed her life so that she might serve as her alter ego, hoping thereby to bask in the kind of kind of glory forever denied her. She bought for her daughter her favourite strawberry birthday cake, with creamy flowers, candles and all. Nina said she didn't feel like it. The moment she heard that, her face turned black. She rushed to the garbage bin and made as if to throw the entire cake away, blazing her her eyes in Nina's direction with a barely disguised venom. Nina yielded and took a piece.
Next we are shown Nina in front of her mirror in the dressing room. We see some scratch marks at her back above her right shoulder blade. She tried to cover it with powder. She continued to work hard, dancing until lights out at the studio to perfect her moves. In the meantime, we see another dancer, a newcomer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis). She also danced the part. She had a natural sensuousness but not Nina's perfection. Thomas said she was a natural for the Black Swan. An intense rivalry developed as the time neared for the announcement of the role. Nina thought she would lose to Lily because she bit Thomas when he tried to seduce her with a kiss after advising her to masturbate herself to relax herself. To her surprise, Thomas chose her perhaps because of her potential for violence and recklessness beneath her calm and controlled exterior. She was presented to the world as the new Swan Queen at a New York benefit ball at the same time as the annoucement of the retirement of the existing prima donna Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who got drunk and falsely accused Nina winning the role by having sex with Thomas and then proceeded to have a traffic accident for which she was hospitalized. Nina visited her idol in hosptial but was met coldly. To get herself into the role, she followed Thomas advice and started to touch herself in bed and in the bathtub.
Next we are shown Lily encouraging Nina to relax a bit with her at a disco-bar in which she was offered drugs and the chance to have sex with some gay or other men they met there just shortly before the opening night She first rejected to do so but later relented. For the first time felt really relaxed but when she was home, she was met with an angry mother for coming home late. For the first time, Nina flew into a rage and swept the ballerina musical alarm clock on to the floor and shut herself in her room and fantasized having sex with Lily. When she came to, she was told by her mother that the latter had already informed the ballet company that she was sick. Nina immediately rushed out to the ballet theatre, only to discover that Lily was rehearsing her part and was told by Thomas that he must have a standby just in case. But she was determined that she would dance the part of the Black Swan.
The night just before the opening night. She continued to perfect her steps and saw/hallucinated Lily having sex with the Thomas to get her role and that that her toes had become webbed like a real swan and she had to detach them. Before going home, she visited Beth in hospital. and told her that all through the years, she adored Beth as her idol and that she found Beth perfect in the way she danced that that all she ever wanted to do was to imitate her. To her surprise and horror, Beth stabbed her own face with a nail file in a fit of jealousy, despair and impotent anger. She left dazed. When she arrived home, she saw herself in the mirror and discovered her face covered in blood but in Beth's dress. She rushed to the toilet, vomitted and when she went into her mother's room, she saw the pictures hanging there melted and the figures there oozed out like ghosts, mocking her and that the scratches on her shoulder blade had reddened even more and when she touched it, she found that it had grown some barbed feather quills in black which she slowly pulled out, her eyes became blood-shot and her legs had turned into those of a swan!
When Nina awoke the following morning, she was told by her mother that she had reported her sick to her company. She immediately rushed out back to the theatre only to to discover Lily dancing her part. She insisted on dancing the part herself. She danced the White Swan perfectly until she hallucinated and was dropped by the Prince. She recovered an continued dancing and got a standing ovation. She rushed back into the dressing room, only to find Lily already dressed for the part of the Black Swan. She struggled with her and stabbed her stomache with the shard of the broken mirror. She hid Lily's body and rushed back to the stage and danced the Black Swan with complete abandon and sensuality. She felt that she had sprung black wings from her shoulder blades. She got a thunderous reception. Back at the stage, everybody congratulated her and she kissed Thomas on her own accord. She went back to the dressing room. Lily came in to congratulate her on her magnficent dance as the Black Swan. Then she realized that she had stabbed herself, not Lily! She covered the wound and went back on stage and danced perfectly as White Swan. As the White Swan, she fell to her suicidal death as the role required, to tumultuous applauses. When Thomas and the other dancers approached to congratulate, they discovered that she was all covered in blood. She was happy. The film ended with her dying gasp, "I felt it! Perfect. I was perfect"!"
Indeed, Natalie Portman was perfect. She showed the rigidity required of her in her dance movement in the first part and the sensuousness and evil in the final sequence. She actually studied ballet several months for this role! Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis were also wonderful respectively as an autocratic and talented artistic director of the American Ballet Company and a half friendly and half jealous "alternate" or surrogate prima donna. To increase the dramatic impact, the film was shot with plenty of close ups on Portman's face, eyes, and parts of her body. The fate of Nina was aptly symbolized by the bedside toy ballerina alarm clock bought by her manipultive mother and its banishment to the floor her spoke eloquently in images of the breaking of her mother's spell on her as mummy's sweet little girl. The loud and harsh sound of the music, however, was a bit more appropriate for rock music of the disco scene than the ballet scenes. The film brought out well, in a surrealistic manner, how the kind of concentation, commitment and dedication to art of some dancers strove for in their quest for artistic perfection can really possess the artist's soul, how they force her to delve into the deepest part of her soul, dredge out therefrom those murky forces which years of civilized elegance has managed to represss and hide from even herself and forge in the crucible of her psyche a kind of spine chilling splendor which finally explodes with passionate abandon into the beautiful movements of her dance in all its dark and sensuous magnificence. The emotional power of those majestic black wings as they rapidly expanded across the screen in all its evil glory is still lingering in my mind even as I am writing!