Black Swan: Into the Art of DarknessBy Frederik Sisa @ 1:00 PM January 21, 2011
Thrill-seekers everywhere may have latched onto Amy Chua’s provocative — and probably un-contextual — support of “Chinese-style” parenting for a good gush of outrage: Deny children their little pleasures, relentlessly coerce them into academic (and other) excellence, and use all means short of the nuclear option to foster respect, obedience and hard work. The result, according to the tiger mother school of parenting, is a “virtuous cycle” in which all that rote practice pays off with the level of achievement that makes work fun. And perhaps also an explanation of the Chinese political system as imagined by party leaders. For the offended, Darren Aranofsky’s masterful psychological phantasm offers a vivid, lyrical rejoinder.
There are no Chinese mothers in Black Swan, but there is a doting parent in the shaded form of Barbara Hershey, whose tenderness is uneasily crossed with Sissy Spacek’s mother in Carrie. One half-expects the woman, an unsuccessful dancer living her ambitions by proxy, to be the explanation for her daughter Nina’s malady. Perhaps she is, but as the scenario plays out, she is merely one of several strongly acted influences – another is Vincent Cassel as a charged and demanding dance company director – exerted on a rising star captured by iron expectations. Nina’s holistic disintegration, to coin a phrase, is almost entirely her own, and Natalie Portman’s career-best performance as a ballerina in a swan dive is a passionate thing laced with poignancy, passion, terror and exhilaration.
No good psychosis comes unaided or unadorned, however, and the premise of a Swan Lake production, in which the parts of the good White Swan and the evil Black Swan are performed by the same ballerina, is a Lynchian canvas in its subversion of identity. Though technically and emotionally perfect as the White Swan, Nina’s innocence presents a barrier to drawing on the blacker impulses that drive the Black Swan. Events, both within and without, conspire to degrade the barrier, particularly a relationship with Lily — played efficiently if unremarkably by Mila Kunis — that melds friendship and rivalry into a warped mass of sexuality, art and death.
Aranofsky’s work, whose manipulations effortlessly and elegantly blur the line between reality and disturbed psyche to create escalating suspense and fascination, again proves him to be the singular kind of director whose vision is capable of overcoming skepticism over the film’s subject matter. Who would have thought that a movie about a wrestler could be so haunting? And yet, there was The Wrestler, notable not only for Mickey Rourke’s introspective performance but for its affecting study of a character that goes beyond the limits of the sports movie or wrestling fandom. For Black Swan, ballet — normally a love-it-or-sleep-through-it affair — is merely the lens through which we magnify the simultaneously terrifying, sublime, deadly and erotic impulses of the artistic drive. Excavating below the surface of an artist’s perfectionism, we find a subtext on the nature of the creative act itself. Does creation shine forth like a star in the darkness? Or is the phoenix a better metaphor, self-immolation as the path to a new birth? With the warning embodied by an elder ballerina named Beth (a superbly unhinged Winona Ryder), the dance company star eclipsed by Nina’s brilliant rise, we can guess at what happens on the other side of the pinnacle. Nina’s fate, though tragic as the end result of perfectionism, is also glorious and romantic because the ultimate impulse comes, not from tiger mothers, but from that cruel inner muse; a victory over herself achieved by sacrificing herself. Who’s to say, then, that the moment of pure, transcendent artistry wasn’t worth the cost?
Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aranofsky. Written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz and John McLaughlin. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. 108 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use).
Mr. Sisa is Assistant Editor of www.thefrontpageonline.com
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