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Natalie Portman: The Performance of the Year

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s unflinching swan dive into the world of artistic expression, is a mirror with multiple foldings. It is about a dancer who strives to be perfect, haunted by her own reflection, which emerges at the worst times. It is about a daughter who is a reflection of her terrified mother who looks at her and sees her young self, but also sees her daughter as something she created, and therefore owns. It is about a student who yearns to fulfill the expectations of her teacher because she is a reflection of his own creative ability. It is about an actress who is fulfilling the demands of her director who requires nothing less than everything. It is about a film that reflects a play-within-a-play — it IS Swan Lake as they DO Swan Lake. And finally, it is about a film that strives to fulfill the critical, judgmental eye of its audience. It is all of those things at once and more. Black Swan may be the best film of 2010.

Natalie Portman has hinted at being a versatile actress, willing to go deep to access the emotional soil for a part, but never has she committed this fully and completely, giving herself over as actors sometimes do – Robert DeNiro is Raging Bull, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Names Desire, Charlize Theron in Monster, Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (Tootsie, Rain Man, etc.) These are those rare occasions when the actor is eclipsed by the character, the performance that then reaches something more than likable, believable; it becomes moving art.

Not only did Natalie Portman, as director Aronofsky said at the premiere last night as he introduced the cast and crew to the audience, live like a ballerina — ate nothing like a ballerina, danced herself into a sweaty froth hours upon hours every day — to the point where her back muscles are visible through her skin; when she lifts her arms they look like feathers pinned down – but somewhere in there she found both her white swan and her black swan, even if it seemed at times that she would fall to pieces because of it. Portman became the character in such a way that the film’s theme IS her transformation. It is often that we see an actress in such complete command of her character the way Portman is here – mirroring Nina’s complete control of the dance, which again, mirrors everything else.

Black Swan is an unforgettable two hours because it is the rare movie that gets better as it evolves. It just gets more and more intense until it pushes itself to the edge of absurdity and you think: what in god’s name is happening to this woman? And in a moment of true genius, the film rises in climax, hits its mark perfectly and ends, just like the ballet Swan Lake. You don’t even know what’s happening to you, in fact, until the film ends and suddenly the cloudy waters become crystal clear. Or do they? It doesn’t answer any questions but reflects them back to you. It’s Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. You look one way, you see one thing. You look another way, you see many things.

I have to admit that I didn’t think Aronofsky could pull something like this off, and my thoughts always lead me back to Portman. Without his “little princess,” his Swan Queen, this is still a good movie, but it isn’t a great one. The supporting performances are all magnificent, especially Barbara Hershey as one of the scariest mothers ever put to film, but Winona Ryder, Mila Kunis and Vince Cassel as well. Hershey and Ryder are particularly well cast – beauties that once captured the hearts of audiences, now working in out in their later years. Both play those kinds of characters, which makes it all the more delicious. And Kunis, with her spider-like tattoo and palpable sexuality -the black swan if there ever was one, provides the perfect contrast to Portman’s white swan.

One of the many things I loved about Black Swan was that, for once, a woman was given the more complex role: she wasn’t serving the purpose of, necessarily, titillating her audience. Of course, that is what the part of the black swan required, and what audiences are expecting from Portman as her hands slide down her body and she begins to moan in pleasure, or try to connect to that place of desire and abandon required of all who give themselves over to sexual release. The audience is waiting for it but we only get it sometimes, never fully because to do so would be to give away that which can’t be given away. Portman’s Nina isn’t given over easily – the spirits that haunt her regularly are at the surface as she tries to forget being “perfect” and to let herself go. The masturbation scenes, the sexual fantasy scenes – these are not put there to excite us, although they briefly do just that, but they are there to deliver yet another dimension to Nina’s transformation from white swan to black swan.

A woman with sexual complexity isn’t explored as much as it should be. Usually they are one thing or the other: frigid or loose. But here is a woman who is struggling with so many things at once – growing up, embracing her dominance as the Swan Queen, quieting the accusations of other jealous dancers, her own needy mother, her own needy self – all coming forth scene by scene, each one more terrifying as the film unfolds. Portman plays her so brilliantly, covering her face with a creamy veil to mask the fear. She has never looked more beautiful – all of the fat shed from her face to reveal her own perfect bone structure. The camera loves her face, and for almost two hours that is what we see: Nina’s perfect face masking the collapse of an identity underneath. There are flickers of conflicting emotions – anger, crazy desperation, severe anxiety, jealousy, lust – but always the steely focus of a dancer whose moment has arrived, for better or worse. Nina gets there, even if it almost kills her.

Black Swan is, in many ways, Portman’s show. But Aronofsky is one of those filmmakers who know what all great artists know – some of whom act on it — there is a dimension to art that is ugly. When one decides to take the plunge down the rabbit hole and into the darker pockets of the human psyche, one must be prepared for what one will find there – and do one’s best not to pretty it up for the sake of its viewer. No, there is a truth in Black Swan that Aronofsky was not afraid to confront. And that truth speaks to us all if we’re ready to listen to it. Ambition, ego, identity, sexuality, power, dominance, success — perfection.

And so it is with this, that we have our black swan, our white swan and all of her lovely and ugly shades in between. In the end it’s hard not to think of Lolita, when Kubrick dressed up Lolita for her play — the frightening vision of her eyes as she briefly but powerfully tastes her own potential. Aronofsky takes that tiny moment and makes it into his masterpiece.