Darren Aronofsky's new film Black Swan, is a psychological thriller that follows one ambitious ballet dancer who may have met her doppelganger in the new member of her company. After years of dedication, Nina (played by Natalie Portman) has a body that has been customized for ballet: lovely, lithe, her joints crack as she stretches, her feet are contorted and bandaged and her ribs are visible. Finally, she has been cast as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, the reward for all those meals she has skipped or purged, the relationships she has avoided and the normal life she has denied herself. Is Nina simply misreading everything that Lily (played by Mila Kunis) says and does out of paranoid rivalry? Or is she really losing her grip with reality?
There are notable actors that have physically transformed to fully embrace/inhabit the characters they portrayed. Robert De Niro, Christian Bale and Charlize Theron famously gained or lost weight and were nearly unrecognizable as a boxer in Raging Bull, a disturbed insomniac in The Machinist and a damaged serial killer in Monster. I read that both Portman and Kunis trained rigorously for months to prepare for their roles. Somehow, two beautiful women transforming into two beautiful ballerinas doesn't have the same impact.
My mind was wandering after 30 minutes of 'Is she? Or isn't she?' I thought about John Cassavettes' film, A Women Under the Influence, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and their ways of depicting madness and a mind fracturing in disturbing and sometimes subtle ways. The love that is tested in A Woman Under the Influence is palpable, the stunted Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver inspires pathos, we are distressed by Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
Like professional sport and its athletes, ballet requires exacting movement, precision and repetition over years of grueling practice. But dancers are different: their audience is smaller, their world is more isolated. Surrounded by mirrors, hours of every day a dancer gazes at her/his own reflection. It sounds a bit crazy, no?