When awards season rolls around, and even for months beforehand, we’re subjected to a lot of hyperbole, where every picture is breathtakingly touted as “best of the year!” and every performance is called Oscar-worthy. More often than not, this is a lot of hogwash but sometimes it turns out a particular piece of work has warranted the buzz.
One such example is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a ballerina whose sanity slowly unravels in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (opening Friday, Dec. 3). Nina (Portman) gets the coveted lead role in a NYC ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, but pressure from a director (Vincent Cassel) who expresses doubts about her ability to play both the white and black swans, plus the presence of a young passionate dancer (Mila Kunis) who seems to know a little if not All About Eve—causes Nina to become paranoid about being replaced. She goes to extremes to keep the part, to make herself perfect, though she’s really descending into madness.
Portman has done edgy and dark before but has never been this effective. When she shaved her head for V for Vendetta, it seemed like a stunt, a too-jarring attempt to break away from her nice-girl image, and the result was unconvincing. But it’s completely believable for the actress to inhabit Nina, with her natural grace, lithe (though much thinner-than-usual) body and swan-like neck. Her pro-level dancing—Portman did much of it herself—seals the deal.
But then, just as the swan splits into two selves, Portman shows us that the sweet pretty exterior is just a cover-up for Nina’s disturbing inner core. Sure, staying on top in the cutthroat world of professional ballet must be stressful, but Nina goes over the edge and Portman makes her mental deterioration terrifying. Nina’s instability makes the movie quite suspenseful at times, for we never know what she’ll do or how far she’ll go. She can have wild sex one minute and fly into a rage the next. She can be joyful and fall apart at the same time. Much has been said about Annette Bening’s performance in The Kids Are All Right and how it’s her time to finally win an Oscar, but I think Portman’s work is much more complex. I haven’t seen Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine yet (will do so tonight) but I’ve seen all the other contenders and think Portman deserves the best actress gold this year.
Kunis, who seems to only get more captivating the older she gets, keeps us guessing as Lily, Nina’s competitor. Her friendliness and steady gaze give nothing away about her true motives. Sometimes it’s harder (and more interesting) to hide something in a performance than to show too much and Kunis does the former, keeping the conflict in play throughout the film. Barbara Hershey, playing Nina’s mother who is a former ballerina, manages to make Mom sympathetic. As Hershey said in the Q&A session I attended (more on that below), she’s not “a mother from hell but a mother in hell,” one mentally ill person taking care of another mentally ill person.
Aronofsky can get a little carried away with imagery in his movies but here the weirdness works because Nina sees things that aren’t rooted in reality. And the way he shoots the ballet is thrilling and visceral, capturing the pain and sweat and blood of it all along with the beauty.
After the Variety screening, Aronofsky, Portman, Kunis, Cassel and Hershey came out to discuss the movie and answer questions. A few highlights:
- Portman hadn’t danced since she was 12 so she started training a year in advance, using her own money to hire a trainer, without even knowing the movie would get financed. She didn’t just do ballet; she cross-trained rigorously. Then the financing came together and fell apart a couple times but she kept training based on her faith in Aronofsky. She even kept it up while shooting another movie [Your Highness, out next year]. She lost about 20 pounds for the role.
- Kunis lost about the same amount of weight, which was the hardest thing for her. She trained seven days a week for two months before shooting [her character doesn’t dance as much as Portman’s in the movie].
- Because the movie only had a $13 million budget, there was apparently no medic on set at one point. Portman was horrified when she found out because the actors and dancers “were losing a toenail a day” so she told the money people to take away her trailer. “Sure enough,” she said, “the next day, the trailer was gone and the nurse was back.”
- Aronofsky made a point to take his camera backstage and onstage with the dancers. He wanted the audience to hear the heavy breathing, see the pain in their feet and experience the effort it takes to create this beauty we usually watch from afar.
- No studio wanted to do this movie despite Aronofsky’s success with The Wrestler. He’s made five films and every time, he’s been the only person in the room who wanted to make it. He’s looking forward to his next project, The Wolverine, because everyone in the room wants it made.
Nerd verdict: Dark, beautiful Swan
Photos: Niko Tavernise