My wife and I were deliberating whether to see “The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg or “Dark Swan,” starring Natalie Portman. . You’d think the one, a boxing movie, would be vastly different from the other, a movie about a ballerina, but it’s not true. Because of a more convenient time slot, we went to see “Dark Swan.”
There’s a great deal of physical pain in the life of Nina, a prima ballerina played by the near iconic Natalie Portman. Nina must endure bruises, pain, and self-sacrifice to accomplish the impossible. Worse, she’s been playing the white swan ballerina of Swan Lake so often that her toes have grown together in the manner of a duck’s web feet. That’s what she imagines, anyway.
Critics seem to judge art films much more harshly than they do playful entertainments. That’s likely because so-called art films allow critics to get out the knives and scalpels of advanced lit-crit classes in the Ivy League.
It’s worth noting that many viewers have described “Dark Swan” as a “love-hate” movie. A “love-hate” actor is an apt description of Natalie Portman as well.
Professional critics like the Christian Science Monitor film critic Peter Ranier disliked the film, generally describing it as pretentious or worse. Ranier’s review is interesting reading, but rather above my pay grade. It’s pure Philistinism to say so but “Dark Swan” was well worth the $10.00 ticket price.
Nina’s what psychologists call a “self-harmer.” Her struggle with Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Ballet is more a case study than a narrative. The absence of a conventional plot focuses attention on Aronofsky’s portrait of Nina. Sometimes it’s like staring at a Rorschach block print. What you see is what you get.
“Dark Swan” is intensely psychological. Director Aronofsky puts the audience so close to Natalie Portman that it sometimes feels obscene. Nina’s face is a transparent veil, unable to hide or protect her from a range of emotions, fantasies, and disappointments. If the suggestions of Nina’s repressed sexuality are too claustrophobic, they are balanced by the free-spirited Mila Kunis, who plays Nina’s dance rival.
Arriving in New York from San Francisco, the free-spirited competitor is alarmed by Nina’s blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality. Nina’s fantasy , played out in film, is one of the elements that gives the film its “R” rating.
“What? You had a lezzie wet dream about me?” the Kunis character says snottily, and with a certain appreciation.
People tend either to idolize Natalie Portman or to tear her down as if she were a condemned building. It would take a petty person to demean the vulnerability she offers to film goers in this film. How many actors could stand so vulnerably before the audience and not break, as Nina eventually does?
Nina is the face of every flower struggling amongst a thousand others for the magical beacon of theatrical sunlight. The artistic and choreographic director harps on Nina’s inability to “let go” or “to be free.” He doesn’t believe she can dance the malevolent dark swan role but only the beneficent white one. Blame Tchaikovsky for the un-PC symbolism.
Nina’s entire existence is gathered into the compulsion of getting that one role which will define her forever. The way in which she ultimately lays it all on the line ends the film at the same uncomfortable level as when it began, but the film was visually fascinating and featured great actors.
Speaking strictly as a Neanderthal, I’d have to say that I like Natalie Portman, and her performance was a tour de force, as theatre people say. It was like watching someone walk out to the edge of a cliff, putting one toe over the edge, uncertain what to do next, the wind fiercely blowing.