There are certain films I use as litmus tests. I've slowly discovered over the years, for example, that I simply don't get along with people who hate The Princess Bride. (There are people who hate The Princess Bride? you're thinking. Why, yes, there are. Rare, but they exist. And I'm pretty sure they're lacking souls.) If someone doesn't find The Royal Tenenbaums amusing, they're never going to find me funny, either. And I think Black Swan is another litmus test, this time of some combination of intelligence and artistic capacity. People either get this movie, and love it, or they hate it because they don't understand; and (perhaps this is too blunt, but oh well) the latter group I have very little respect for.
It is, essentially, a story of the search for artistic perfection. There are so many ways the movie could go wrong--fall into the traps of stereotypes, of melodrama, of being about nothing but the dance--but instead it soars. We, like Nina, are unable to keep track of reality as she makes the psychological descent into the black swan, the evil twin version of the white swan she has embodied all of her life. Natalie Portman, who trained for a year and dropped 20 pounds for the role, never once has a false moment. She absolutely deserved the Globe she won last week, and the rest of the cast supports her flawlessly.
What is so remarkable about the movie, though, is how seamlessly the production choices support the themes of the show. My favorite element by far is Aronofsky's use of symbolism. The duality of the black and white might have overpowered the movie; instead, it is an ever-present undercurrent that enhances the action. It is most obvious in the main costume choices, but even the company's director (a divinely prickish Vincent Cassel) has an office and an apartment that are entirely done in black and white. Smaller choices--the pale grey of Nina's practice tutu, for instance--are just as effective. I was told before I saw the movie that there was a mirror in every scene, and it's very nearly true: Aronofsky uses every reflective surface he can think of to underscore not only the intense self-scrutiny of the dancer but the doubling of Nina's character. This is pulled off fantastically in not only the set design but also in some very clever camera angles.
Although brilliant, this movie is not, by any stretch, easy to watch. As is typical of what I've seen of Aronofsky's work, he brings home the physical nature of the characters in very tightly shot close-ups. There are no illusions about the beauty of the ballet dancer's body in this movie: we see the distorted feet, the split toenails, hear Nina cracking every joint in her body, watch a physical therapist dig what seems like her entire hand under Nina's ribcage; and it only gets worse as Nina makes her descent. There is a decent amount of sexuality in the film, but it's done in such a way as to leave the audience unsettled instead of titillated. Additionally, because the entirety of the story is told from Nina's perspective, we take the journey into madness with her, and that's not pleasant in the least.
Perhaps what resonates the most about this movie is the sense that anyone who is at all passionate about their art can relate to Nina's desire for perfection and the trouble with letting go enough to achieve it. There's something Thomas (Cassel's character) says about the prima ballerina that Nina replaces, Beth, that I find really embodies the artistic temperament:
. . . everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that's what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.Nina just ends up taking it a bit too far.
If nothing I've said sounds at all appealing, then there's probably no hope for you. But if you're at all piqued by my description, I strongly suggest seeing it--and do it soon, before it leaves the big screen. It's worth the exorbitant ticket price, I promise.