Birds of a Feather
Published on December 2nd, 2010 | by Ryan Wells2
The story surrounds virginal Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)—mid-twenties, tender, emotionally fragile, determined—who is part of a ballet troupe that performs at Lincoln Center. She’s supporting cast at best and hasn’t, like so many of us, had her big chance yet, and by golly she’s going to get it. As luck will have it the aging swan (Winona Ryder, doing a strutty caricature of her own career) gets her wings clipped and sent to pasture by the typically brutish and horny director Tomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Thus there’s a wide opening for one of the young chicks to win the lead as the Swan Queen in the upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
Not so fast. Mila Kunis (finally coupled with a decent role) throws Portman’s character for an utter loop upon her bushy and continually erotic arrival from San Francisco. She’s far more developed sexually it seems—and she knows it. (Her first real encounter with Nina is at a gala where she plods into the bathroom and removes her panties, tosses them in her handbag and proposes a chat right then and there next to the sink.) And while all of her overtures at friendship with Nina are flirtatious and most seemingly gregarious we see things in a whole other light through Nina’s eyes. Thus the fun begins.
Where “Black Swan” falters is in the mother-daughter duo Aronofsky and screenwriter Mark Heyman conjured up. I’m fine with overbearing mothers and fragile daughters; however by 2010, boys, we’ve seen enough. “Precious” nailed the coffin shut last year. And while mother (Barbara Hershey, always a pleasure to see) is devoted to the point of arresting her daughter’s development through curfews, stuffed animals and bizarre portraits she paints and cries over, she comes across as extremely pastiche and inconsequential to the plot’s development. Surely, we know Nina will break free from this ridiculous situation she has. But is it quite necessary to have a pageant mother simply because the daughter is studious and an introvert? This relationship adds nothing, and those scenes are only manageable through the odd auto-erotic shot thrown in; though surely an Electra complex is buried somewhere in there. (Admittedly, probably one of the most touching and precious scenes in cinema’s recent years is tearful Nina hiding in a bathroom stall to call her mother about some glorious news she just learned as if she was picked for a little league soccer team. You don’t, however, need an imperious parent for that.)
Aronofsky is a master of build-up and climax, a rare skill these days as most films deflate around the quarter point. His best work, “The Wrestler,” which can be considered a companion piece to “Black Swan,” doesn’t have a lot going on throughout, though the third act is an exercise in audience swell and release. Aronofsky uses the physical parts of his actors to great success—whether it’s their grotesque transformation/decaying in “Requiem,” a much pilled wrestler or the mind of a paranoid mathematician—most often using their corporeal metamorphosis as a climatic device. No better indication of this is Nina in “Black Swan,” who after succumbing to her schizophrenia and logical, albeit unhealthy, competitiveness finally removes her sexual and psychological frigidness and becomes a complete, fulfilled woman. (Portman plays Nina wisely and smartly, though I do worry about her career path which inadvertently—and ironically—could resemble Ryder’s which leaves little to be desired considering Portman’s current reign as a Swan Queen herself in Hollywood).
The final scenes of “Black Swan” are staggeringly beautiful for their staging and pacing; and cinema history will make note of it. Being spellbound at the movies doesn’t happen often, if hardly ever these days, which is an unfortunate truth. But these remaining minutes of Aronofsky’s film are timeless, tragic and all together perfect. And for that alone Aronofsky deserves an ovation.