Darren Aronofsky has an interesting way of getting unforgettable performances out of a variety of people over his career. Marlon Wayans may be known for comedy but had an acclaimed part in Requiem for a Dream, Mickey Rourke completed his dramatic comeback with The Wrestler and Hugh Jackman showed he’s more than a pretty face in The Fountain. He has an uncanny ability to bring out great performances out of actors no matter the material, ranging from drug addicts to pro wrestling. So it’s not out of the ordinary to see him do the same with Ballet, bringing out the year’s best performance from Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who’s been in a company for a while but hasn’t been able to grasp the role of the lead ballerina. When Beth (Winona Ryder) retires, and Thomas (Vincent Cassel) taps her in the lead of his production of “Swan Lake” as the Swan Queen. Technically proficient, but seemingly cold, she’s brilliant in executing but lacks the ability to “seduce” the audience that Thomas desperately wants out of her. Enter Lilly (Mila Kunis), a new hire from across the country. Sensual and uninhibited, she’s not as good a dancer as Nina but has that allure Nina’s dancing doesn’t.
The film follows Nina as she prepares for “Swan Lake” and we find our way into her world. She still lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey) and doesn’t seem to have matured beyond a certain point emotionally. In a room that most 12 year olds would have, sans the Edward or Jacob posters, her room is littered with stuff animals and various white or pink items. Living only to dance, and with a parent seeming to keep her in a perpetual state of arrested development, her world is changed with the introduction of Lilly. She’s everything that Nina wants to be, deep down, and what begins as a rivalry turns into a bizarre friendship between the pair as Nina begins to explore parts of her that she never would’ve. All the while the two are engaged in a rivalry as Lilly seemingly is trying to replace Nina in “Swan Lake” as Nina breaks down on both physical and psychological levels. It’s breathtaking in its brilliance because of how Aronofsky handles the material.
Aronofsky takes what could be a much bigger film and makes it small, following Nina and giving us her point of view exclusively. Using the same sort of style he did with The Wrestler, using handheld cameras and following Nina from points all around her, Aronofsky is using Nina’s breakdown as a person as it coincides with her professional success to coincide with the ballet in an interesting juxtaposition. Nina starts innocent, ala the White Swan, and ends up turning into something akin to the Black Swan (the not-so innocent one), and it takes a remarkable performance to keep it from becoming campy.
Natalie Portman brings out an amazing part of herself in this transformation; she’s best at playing innocent but her transformation to the dark side is gradual and subtle. This isn’t something that happens after a while; it takes the entire film for her to completely transform into something completely opposite to where she started. It’s in her interactions with Thomas where it comes out. In the beginning she’s docile and clay in his hands, easily manipulated like a child. By the end she’s confident and in control of their interactions, ordering him around even. It’s brilliant as she changes everything she does throughout the film in small but subtle ways; the way she carries herself changes throughout the film into the final transformation. This is much less showy in Portman’s hands and it works because of it. This is a role that requires her to tone down her natural charm and charisma into more of a meek character that transforms into something much more. But it wouldn’t work without Mila Kunis opposite her.
Lost in the hype about Portman’s brilliance is Kunis, best known for being a comic actress, bringing out the darkness in Nina. Portman plays innocent extremely well but Kunis matches her as the one to bring out the dark side in Nina. Kunis is seductive and alluring without playing it over the top. It’s subtle but provocative, gradually working its way. Kunis matches her as an actress, not an easy feat, and it’s easy to overlook considering Portman is the film’s star and Kunis isn’t. But it’s a vital role and in the wrong hands it’d just be casting someone who’s aesthetically similar to Portman. Kunis brings a unique energy to the occasion and the two have a strong chemistry together that carries the film.
Aronofsky seems to be finding a groove as a film-maker in that he relies on brilliant performances to carry his films and Black Swan is no exception. Natalie Portman carries this film in a heart-breaking performance in the same way that Mickey Rourke did with The Wrestler and with the same type of powerful performance.
Director: Darren Aronofsky Notable Cast: Vincent Cassel, Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder Writer(s): Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.