Director Darren Aronofsky resurrected Mickey Rourke’s career with The Wrestler, and worked a similar boon of blessings for Natalie Portman in Black Swan. She won the Oscar for her performance, and she appears to have blossomed into the Meryl Streep of her generation.
The role checks off many of the things on the list that attract Mr. Oscar—remarkable weight loss, all-consuming immersion in a foreign skill-set (ballet), and shape-shifting disappearance into a character. Indeed, her brief transformation at the end, into the actual Black Swan of the title, is as bona fide a shape-shift as one will ever see in cinema—that moment alone was almost worth the price of admission.
The film is a dark tale of obsession with artistic technique—the ruthless ambition, the sacrifice, the obsessive-compulsiveness. It tells of how a dancer manages to capture two out of the three main ingredients that, according to Socrates, constitute great art: truth and beauty. What’s missing to a certain extent is goodness.
The plot is straightforward—mousey, introverted good girl wants and wins lead role, has the technical chops, but would appear to lack the requisite personality to play the entire role, which contains two extremes. She’s inherently the white swan, chaste, demure, perfect, but can she summon up the Dionysian as well as the Apollonian and also inhabit the Black Swan believably?
Can an artist embody that extreme a range; and if not, how can it be achieved? And ultimately, what’s the cost? These are the questions the movie poses.
Barbara Hershey plays the ballet version of the overprotective horror-mom in Carrie, vicariously living dreams of success through her daughter. Vincent Cassel plays his usual charismatic creep in the form of a tyrant choreographer. And Mila Kunis is seductive as the dancer with the chaotic, dark fire that Portman lacks.
Kunis draws Portman’s character into her world of hookups in bars, pill-enhanced mood control, and laissez-faire attitude toward practice, ostensibly to become her friend, but we quickly sense a darker, ruthless competitiveness that might be behind her motives.
Portman allows herself to be drawn in, since, as the theory goes, to be true in art one sometimes has to live it. Her character’s powerful dual attachment to being perfect and the recognition for having achieved perfection is such that she MUST have the role. This ambition is underscored throughout the film by self-mutilations that indicate the lengths she’s willing to go to in order to access her inner Black Swan.
Since our shortened attention spans need to be held more and more these days by the shock techniques of the horror genre, there are many in this film. There’s also a gratuitous sex scene between Portman and Kunis. It’s shock ’em and titillate ’em now, and few directors shock and titillate like Darren Aronofsky.
The dark grays, blues, and blacks make it a somber, heavy film. The self-mutilation is disturbing, and the pall of horror and creepiness hangs over everything. So what’s redeeming about it, besides the beauty of Portman and Kunis and the interesting questions about perfection in art?
I came away from the film wondering what would motivate one to sacrifice that completely, and endure that much pain for perfection, other than a massive desire to show off. The audience clearly loves Portman’s final performance.
We all go to see art to experience a degree of perfection, and as a reminder of what high levels humanity is capable. But did she do it all for the audience? No, she did it entirely for herself. Is it possible to achieve artistic perfection without the standard narcissist artist personality?
Assuming the desire to show off is a baser human motivation, what higher thing could take its place, and is it even possible? We know art can heal. The classic question is whether, upon dissipating the obsessive-compulsive behavior, ambition, and narcissism, it’s possible to attain perfection.
Instead of the film’s dark conclusion (which I won’t give away), I’d liked to have seen not a Hollywood ending per se, but the outcome had Socrates’s missing ingredient—goodness—been introduced.
Goodness, in this case, would mean a search for an inner balance between the two extremes (perhaps, compassion for self) of Black and White, as opposed to a rending asunder. This film shows the dramatic sacrifice that happens when the third ingredient goes missing. The film in my head would maybe have attempted to show the healing potential of the art—for the artist.
Maybe my film is the White Swan to this Black Swan. Then again, maybe it’s a Gray Swan.