Magazine | December 20, 2010, Issue

Film: Dancing in the Dark

A review of Black Swan

Natalie Portman became a movie star by playing luminous teenagers, and it’s been a problem for her ever since. Not because she’s allowed herself to be typecast, exactly; most of the roles she’s chosen in her twenties have been obviously calculated to prove that she’s a grown-up actress, and not just the lovely, fragile, watchful girl-child who dazzled in such films as The Professional and Heat. But despite having persuaded directors to cast her as a stripper, an army wife, a terrorist, and even a lustful, scheming Anne Boleyn, Portman remains a prisoner of her girlhood. At 29, she’s as luminous as ever, but she hasn’t demonstrated anything more than the most basic, marks-hitting competence in her attempts to play fully formed adults.

Her starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama, Black Swan, doesn’t break that pattern, because the character she’s playing, an up-and-coming ballerina named Nina Sayers, pretty obviously isn’t an adult. Nina is coddled, infantilized, neurotic, and quasi-virginal; she lives with her controlling, ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a hot-pink bedroom thronged with stuffed animals. Portman took a substantial risk by accepting this kind of part, since it’s an obvious step back from the kind of “I am woman, hear me roar” role that she’s been looking for. But the decision paid off handsomely: Black Swan is a reminder that when Portman’s in her comfort zone — and, in this case, embodying a character whose dilemmas bear some resemblance to her own — she can be absolutely transfixing.

When the movie begins, Nina is up for the lead role in a production of Swan Lake, which is being overseen and reinterpreted by the domineering, charismatic choreographer Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel). His star and “princess,” up till now, has been Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder, a Portman-esque actress who never escaped her ingenue beginnings), but she’s aged out of the part — “practically in menopause,” the catty junior ballerinas murmur — and Nina is suddenly elevated in her place. Not without mixed feelings on LeRoy’s part, though. His new star is technically proficient, but he needs her to play both the virginal, virtuous White Swan and her dark, seductive doppelganger, and he isn’t sure that Nina has enough of the Black Swan in her to pull it off.

She isn’t sure, either — and it doesn’t help when the perfect Black Swan floats in from San Francisco, in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sensual and free-spirited addition to the troupe who resembles a through-a-glass-darkly version of Nina. LeRoy is obviously drawn to her, and Nina is as well: Her fear of losing the lead role to Lily commingles with a sense that her own dark side is somehow embodied in her rival, and a sapphic obsession blossoms from the combination.

#page#Madness blossoms as well. Nina begins to see doppelgangers everywhere: Her reflection blurs into Lily, into Beth, into her mother. The ballet invades her dreams, and then her flesh: Her toes web together, blood pools at her fingertips, wings stir beneath her shoulder blades. Maybe she’s being pushed into the abyss — by Lily’s ambitions and manipulations, by LeRoy’s tyrannical tutelage, by her mother’s passive-aggressive smothering. Maybe she’s leaping into it, hoping the darkness will infuse her, and then bear her upward to new artistic heights. Either way, both her madness and the movie build to quite the frenzied, hallucinatory conclusion.

All in all, Black Swan is a riveting, disturbing little story, though I’m not quite sure whether it adds up to more than just a highbrow exploitation picture. In a way, Aronofsky’s movie is a throwback to the melodramas of an earlier time: It’s All About Eve by way of Vertigo, Psycho, and Mommie Dearest, with some of the corrosive energy of 1970s horror worked in as well. But there’s also an obvious thread of postmodern meta-ness running through the story: the casting of Portman and Ryder in roles that mirror their real-life career trajectories, the parallels between LeRoy’s attempt to coax a transformative performance out of Nina and Aronofsky’s obvious determination to do the same with his real-life star — and then the way the movie nods, in queasiness-inducing ways, to some of the creepily Lolita-ish enthusiasms of Portman’s online fan base. (That pinker-than-pink bedroom gets used for more than just pillow fights.) Sometimes, all of these moving parts seem to add up to a psychologically resonant and terrifying whole. But sometimes it feels like Aronofsky was just looking for an excuse to film Kunis and Portman French-kissing.

Whether the movie is art or exploitation, though, Portman’s performance is the best work she’s done in years. I don’t know what it betokens for her future. (Looking ahead, I see that she’s scheduled to co-star in a romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher, which suggests an actress whose career is still a bit adrift.) But it’s proof, at least, that when the stars align and the melodrama surges, she can still knock it out of the park.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Whip Dude

Washington, D.C. — On Election Night, as dusk settled upon the city, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, as ever, was relaxed. His thick salt-and-pepper hair was brushed back; the sleeves of his ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A New Paul Revere

After observing a Fourth of July celebration in Yellowstone National Park in 1889, a young (and benignly amused) Rudyard Kipling wrote that he was “amazed” at how proud Americans were ...
Politics & Policy

Broken Dreams

Sixteen years after the end of apartheid and just months after successfully hosting Africa’s first-ever World Cup, how is the “Rainbow Nation” really faring? As South African historian and journalist ...
The Straggler

Hats Checked

The other day I stepped into an elevator while wearing a hat. Seeing ladies in the elevator, I removed my hat. One of the ladies, who was of a certain ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

One Grain at a Time Ronald Radosh’s review of Stanley Kurtz’s Radical-in-Chief (“The Obama Vision,” November 15), particularly his description of the incrementalist tactics of stealth socialists such as André Gorz, ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The entrant from Alaska was poorly qualified and awkward, she kept taking wrong steps, and the experts gave her low marks, yet she attracted plenty of votes because of ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

AFTER READING THE JOURNALS OF GEORGE FOX They told me, “We’re quite busy here.” I told him, “Stay away from me.” I lay awake. I watched the wind Unwind the branches of a tree. I ...
Athwart

Trust but Terrify

As a lucky guest on the recent NR cruise, I had two options for keeping up on events: pay for Internet, which at sea often seems to be handed down ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More