I have watched scores of movies in my 25 years, but only one film had ever truly moved me to tears. Baz Luhrmann’s sprawling epic Australia. During that last five minutes or so, as Nicole Kidman’s Sarah Ashley bid her heartrending goodbye to young Nahla, the gravity of the scene proved too overpowering and I was easily reduced to a ball of sobs and sniffles, sitting in that half-empty movie theatre on a balmy Wednesday evening. I am a sucker for the authentic expression of untamed emotion, whether it is projected through celluloid or some other effective medium.
Two years later, history is repeating itself in my life with the arrival of Natalie Portman’s exquisite, stand-up-and-cheer performance as the dedicated ballerina Nina Sayers in Black Swan, an excellent film that delivers an ending so endlessly moving and powerful that I could do nothing but let the tears flow.
Masterfully directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), Black Swan is a beautifully told and exquisitely acted film that boasts a gorgeous musical score and ethereal dance performances that transport you to a magical realm. Beautiful and breathtaking, psychological and challenging, the film takes viewers inside a world peopled by ambitious, fiercely competitive ballerinas who crave the spotlight.
But none are as utterly committed as Nina (Portman) who, like the consummate dance professional, lives and breathes ballet, more so as her New York dance company gears up for a new take on the timeless classic Swan Lake to open their new season. With the company’s prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) heading into ‘retirement,’ Nina is dying to assume the highly coveted position so she can finally tackle the demanding part of the Swan Queen (White Swan/Black Swan) in the production.
Beautiful, fragile and fearful, Nina easily embodies the White Swan, but in the eyes of the company’s predatory artistic director Thomas Leroy (a functional Vincent Cassel) the beguiling Black Swan doesn’t reside in her, and the part seems to be slipping away when a new rival, Lily (a pitch-perfect Mila Kunis) arrives from San Francisco. Can Nina prove in time that she has the goods to be both adorably nice and wickedly naughty?
As creative people have to accept, mastering the hurdles that block your path to self-fulfilment (and other goals) often requires that you simply let go and lose yourself completely in your art. For some, this often translates to a dalliance with the dark side. Dark impulses, after all, can be thrilling but, as the film observes, they can also lead to terrible mental anguish and, in some cases, self-destruction.
Intimately detailing Nina’s rigorous quest to realise her desire for artistic achievement and perfection, Black Swan progresses briskly, but we’re really just anxious for the grand climax when Nina will finally take centrestage to morph into the title character. Really engrossing stuff; you can’t pry your eyes from the screen even if you tried. I’m sure that for a few, however, the film’s real highlight is Nina and Lily’s twisted rivalry/friendship that heads to a charged, drug-induced quasi-lezzie bedroom showdown.
Aronofsky, who guided Mickey Rourke to an Oscar nod in The Wrestler, shows he is a visionary filmmaker with a razor-sharp eye for artistic beauty, as well as a knack for the thrills and jolts attendant to the psychological thriller-drama. And he is so good with his actors here that the performances are never less than startling.
Kunis is a knockout (that sex scene is epic!); Ryder is commanding in her few brief scenes; Barbara Hershey as Nina’s overly attentive mother (“You are not my Nina right now!”) seriously deserves more screen work, and Cassel is just a devilish joy to watch. But this is Portman’s film and she gives the performance of a lifetime, imbuing Nina with vulnerability, dazzling grace and sweetness, all the while saving the delicious malevolence and seduction to spring on us at the most opportune time. Real talk: no actress has given a more flawless, strenuous performance this year, so the Oscar is Portman’s to lose.
As for the ending of the film, it is truly something to experience: deeply stirring and sad yet hopeful and triumphant, just like the film itself, easily one of the best pictures of the year. It’s a film about the price of perfection, but it also efficiently explores themes of passion and losing control and the life of the artist. If Black Swan doesn’t tug at your heartstrings or move you in some other profound way, you’re simply not human.