(Danish and I plan to write occasionally for www.criticaltwenties.in, which is a fantastic site for articles by a bunch of smart 20-somethings, on a variety of topics including politics, sports, philosophy, law etc. This review was featured on C20. To read it there, follow this link.)
Like a ballet production, this movie has poise, drama, style, emotion and a thundering climax. It has been described as a psychological thriller, but it is so much more. Do you remember the final scene in Billy Elliot? Billy Elliot has grown up and is about to make his entrance as the lead in a ballet. We know he’s talented, but what will he be like as a mature dancer? The moment of suspense is almost unbearable, the crescendo is rising, and then, he soars and he is glorious. That scene still makes my heart stop every single time I watch it. Now, stretch that one scene into 108 breathtaking minutes, and you have Black Swan.
In Black Swan, Nina Sayers is a quiet, timid, young ballet soloist who lives with her overbearing mother, practices every day and does what she’s told. The director of the ballet announces that the coveted role of the Swan Queen in the famous ballet, “Swan Lake” is up for grabs. But the dancer who claims this role must not only be able to play the role of the beautiful, chaste, and frail ‘White Swan’, but must also be able to play the role of the darker, seductive and sexual ‘Black Swan’. Nina gets the role, but everybody knows that while she’s a perfect White Swan, she’s just too virginal to play the Black Swan. And thus, Nina descends into the darkness of her own psyche, to find the Black Swan in her.
Perfection of technique in an art can only take you so far. Take a look at this video (it is less than 2 minutes long). It is of Anna Pavlova performing her masterpiece: The Dying Swan. Then take a quick look at some of the other artists performing the same role. Don’t they seem practiced and self-conscious? With Pavlova on the other hand, I feel the dying throes of the swan. Death has never been more heart-rending and at the same time, beautiful. They say that she was never very good at the ‘gymnastics’ bit of ballet, and yet she remains the most famous ballerinas of all time because of her power to emote. I confidently comment on her performance, despite being barely able to spell ‘ballet’ let alone claim awareness of its intricacies, because Pavlova felt that her art was not to be restricted to the lorgnette/monocle crowd, but must transcend education, class, nationality and language. She enthralled audiences from the hallowed halls of the Mariinsky Theatre to little towns in South America. Art must communicate and not be mired down by rules, she believed. And like Pavlova, Nina too struggles to throw off the shackles of training and morality, and find the essence of the Swan Queen in her.
Many have compared this movie to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a fair comparison (and a compliment) because one slowly loses one’s sanity as the film unravels. But in Rosemary’s Baby, we are a part of Mia Farrow’s madness and despair, because we don’t quite know what to believe either (till the makers copped out in the end and smashed subtlety with a sledgehammer). In Black Swan, though, we are kept at arm’s length; front row spectators to her existential crisis. It is kind of fitting in a movie about a performance art, and certainly not unintentional.
Edgar Degas famously said, “Art is a vice. One does not take it in lawful wedlock, one rapes it.”
I have always wondered what it must be like, to have such an all-consuming passion for an art, that one needs no other sustenance; to burn from within. How wonderful it must be to love something so deeply, that everything in life, including death, must seem trivial. That’s what being the Swan Queen meant for Nina. The same burning passion we saw in Billy Elliot, in Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose), Van Gogh (Lust for Life) and so many others. I now understand the meaning of the agony and the ecstasy, and I envy them for it.
(The closest thing I have to a passion is StumbleUpon, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to die while Stumbling. It would be so horrendously embarrassing to be found dead with a LOLCat on your computer screen).
That Natalie Portman is going to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress is a given. The question is, will she win? Her serious competition for this year (barring any obvious Oscar fodder that releases this month) will probably be from Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole and Hilary Swank in Conviction. Hilary’s got two and Nicole’s got one already, so they won’t be winning in a year when two actors are due overlong for an Oscar. Julianne Moore has been passed up four times, and Annette Bening thrice. Add to that the fact that being gay in a movie is the fastest route to a tearful, “spontaneous” speech at the Kodak Theatre. Which is why this is almost certainly Annette or Julianne’s year. I’d go with Annette because her character was way more compelling.
So what are Natalie’s chances? The Academy does go nuts over pretty movies about elegant things (like the ballet), so that’s in her favour. And the one thing that the Academy loves almost as much as a gay character is a crazy/having-psychiatric-disorders character. And Natalie’s so pretty and put in so much effort. But she’s young, so they’ll probably hand her a Golden Globe for her troubles, a pat on the back and give the Oscar to Annette. Which is an awful pity, because, if these things were objective, Natalie would win this hands down.
Go on, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, prove me wrong.