Ballet as a Bloodsport

Darren Aronofsky, 2010

Got a secret
Can you keep it?
Swear this one you'll save
Better lock it in your pocket
Taking this one to the grave
If I show you then I know you won't tell what I said
'Cause two can keep a secret if one of them is dead

- The Pierces, Secret

How far are you willing to go for the sake of absolute perfection? For Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), as far as it takes.

In Black Swan, ambitious ballerina Nina Sayers is tapped to star in the new production of Swan Lake, which is being helmed by the company's flirty director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). As the production approaches its first show, Nina finds her life resembling that of the two main characters in Swan Lake: the Swan Queen and her wicked twin, the Black Swan.

Sheltered and frigid Nina is also threatened by the new girl in the company, the cultured and laid-back Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina's feeling of threat transforms into fascination, which is not exactly romantic in nature, more like an obsessive one. Nina is obsessed with Lily because the latter personifies everything she's not: self-assured and independent. Nina's obsession later transforms into paranoia as she sees herself being the Swan Queen, and Lily as the Black Swan off to eliminate her.

Suffering from low self-esteem and anorexia, Nina goes deeper down the rabbit hole of psychosis. (One can't help but remember the brilliant but tragic Gelsey Kirkland while watching the film.) Add to that the pressure of being the perfect ballerina. Ballet is both beauty and pain, and that's exactly what this film shows — tiis ganda.† The illusion of perfection becomes a necessity for Nina. She desperately wants to be perfect like her idol, retired prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder).

Most of the performances are neat. With her somewhat formal persona, Natalie Portman is remarkable as the I'm-too-serious-to-have-fun ballerina that is Nina Sayers. Miss Portman's most effective element is her voice, which perfectly translates Nina's fragile nature.

Mila Kunis has come a long way since That '70s Show. She is a refreshing presence in the film. Mila is a great contrast to Miss Portman's Nina, mainly because her striking appeal complements Miss Portman's simple beauty. I think both actresses shared good chemistry because they contradict each other's personality in a flawless manner.

Vincent Cassel tries to bring in some seduction with a French accent; but his performance as Thomas is not as notable as his other roles. He just looks like Vincent Cassel in a Hollywood movie. (I guess I just got used to seeing him in French films.)

Winona Ryder looked more insane here than in Girl, Interrupted — that's if we're talking about stereotypical insanity. She made quite a comeback in this film, albeit short screen time.

Barbara Hershey is also good as Nina's emotional and controlling mother. She kinda reminds me of Kathleen Turner in The Virgin Suicides, and a little bit of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique illustrates Nina's dual personality by incorporating quite a lot of mirror shots. It's as if whenever Nina is looking at the mirror, she is facing her own monster. Shots from Nina's back are also prominent, which gives us a sense of what Nina is going through. It's like we're after her, but not really — intelligent move by both Libatique and Aronofsky.

The film somehow achieves that "opera house feeling" with composer Clint Mansell's work. The musical score is as explosive as the choreography.

Black Swan is what happens when Center Stage makes love with Persona, or the other way around. But Aronofsky's film was still able to be original by veering more towards the dark and bizarre aspect, employing surrealistic elements to convey Nina's descent into perfect madness.

Ballet entails discipline, which can either make or break a dancer. It is a competitive craft in which one's toughest competition is not the other dancers but one's self.

"The only person standing in your way is you." The film shows us that we create our own monsters, out of fear and doubt. When Nina had a wet dream about Lily, she succumbs to her other side. It is when she "made love" with Lily that she begins to acknowledge the Black Swan. And when she "stabs" Lily, Nina (figuratively) kills her old self, the Swan Queen, finally accepting her Black Swan side. Who says ballet is not a bloodsport?

Trailer for Black Swan:

Tiis ganda is a Tagalog slang for when someone is willing to experience pain for the sake of beauty.

DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended. I don't own or claim to own any of the photos used.

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