To unlock her inner genius, or dark side, Vincent Cassel suggests that Natalie Portman has a go at flicking her bean. “You should play with yourself,” he says.
I never knew this about cracking one out. How come no-one told me earlier? And if it’s true, how come I aren’t some egg head level genius? How come I haven't invented the flying car, or mastered the stock market, simply by choking the chicken?
Anyway, Natalie Portman is Nina Seyers, a ballerina working for a New York ballet company. Vincent Cassel is putting on a production of Swan Lake, and competition is intense for the leading role of the Swan Queen, a part that requires a certain duality of personality to convincingly play the white swan, and the movie’s namesake, the black swan.
Nina’s trouble is that she’s great at portraying the fragility of the white swan, but utterly hopeless at playing the black swan. She’s too perfect, not wild enough in nature, and Cassel constantly berates her for this throughout the film.
At the same time, she eyes a rival dancer called Lily (Mila Kunis), somewhat baffled by Lily’s innate ability to be dark, mysterious and sexy, all the qualities of the black swan that she herself lacks.
Just how far, mentally and physically, Nina will go to nail the part, is the primary focus. Thus, Aronofsky directs with the camera hugging Portman all the way through the movie. There’s barely a second when she’s not in shot, Aronofsky recording every flicker of doubt, frustration, fear and madness on Portman’sface.
It’s probably her best performance since Leon, and it’s been a long time coming. She’s the film’s centre, brittle, detached, the other characters revolving around her. She’s not an especially likeable person here, consumed by her obsession to be the best dancer she can be.
She’s Victoria Page from The Red Shoes — an obvious influence for Aronofsky: even some of the camera twirls seem pinched directly from it — with the dial cranked up to 11. The film also draws influence from a certain anime by the late, great Satoshi Kon.
The resultant mix is an odd, never less than interesting, over the top, horror film. Some might be surprised to find a horror story lurking in a film about ballet, but it’s there alright. Pop music, movies, they both thrive on celebrity culture, detailing every movement of our favourite stars beyond their chosen professions. Ballet, by contrast, remains distant, and unknowable to a lot of us. And the unknown is always key, when tapping into our fears.
Black Swan is one of those films where every shot, every beat of the story seems carefully considered. Save for one, maybe two cliched (as well as unintentionally comic) moments which belong in a cheaper, less demanding horror film, Black Swan is nigh on perfect.
Still not sure cracking one out is going to make anyone a genius though!