Black Swan: Natalie Portman's Oscar Moment?

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Natalie Portman in Black Swan

A review of Black Swan from its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September:

"Natalie Portman, apparent soon-to-be Oscar winner," the Washington Post headline blared, with only a hint of drollery. "Evidently Natalie Portman already has this year's Academy Award for best actress all sewn up," wrote Jan Chaney in the Post's Celebritology 2.0 column. "At least the media buzz coming out of the Venice Film Festival — where her Black Swan just premiered — is making it sound that way." In fact, most of the early reviews, while enthusiastic about Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller and Portman's performance as a ballerina who must face down demons when given the lead role in Swan Lake, stopped short of Oscar predictions. The Times of London's Kevin Maher came closest: "Portman is astounding ... Awards are sure to follow."

I've also heard from folks at Venice who think Black Swan is a junky horror show and Portman way too strident. Me, I'm of two minds about a movie that wants to be a nail-ripping thriller and a statement on an artist's unholy communion with her role. It's reminiscent of older, better movies: the late-'40s backstage dramas A Double Life (Ronald Colman plays Othello and becomes fatally jealous of his actress ex-wife) and the classic ballet melodrama The Red Shoes; and of films about tender, troubled psyches — I won't say which ones — by Roman Polanski, Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg and David Fincher. Black Swan also takes a view of women that might kindly be described as old-fashioned.

But opinion is almost beside the point here. Journalists know that sticking the magic word Oscar in a headline is a cheap, effective way of getting attention for a film they like, and for themselves. No self-respecting critic would sink that low.

A side beneficiary of the heavy touting for Portman, by the relative few who've seen the movie and the legions who haven't, is Venice. The world's oldest continuing film festival, now in its 67th session, is also perhaps the least appreciated of the medium's major annual bashes. Critics from all over the world go to Cannes and Toronto, but Venice, coming just a week before the Canadian fest, gets ignored by North American reviewers. So for a decade, the received wisdom has been that the Oscar season begins in Toronto. Yet in just the past five years, such Academy favorites as Brokeback Mountain, The Queen, Michael Clayton, The Wrestler and The Hurt Locker had their world premieres on the Lido, the swank island that's a 12-min. vaporetto ride from St. Mark's Square. This is surely the snuggest and most congenial of the top film festivals, so if some of Portman's acclaim rubs off on Venice, that's fine.

Two years ago, Aronofsky copped the festival's first prize, the Golden Lion, for The Wrestler, another study of an athlete-actor who tests himself brutally to stay in the game. At the Venice press conference, the director said he was struck by the similarities between wrestlers and dancers: "They both have these performers who use their bodies in extremely physical ways." They punish themselves for their art. Actors do too; if they don't, an ambitious director will. As Aronofsky imposed a strict regimen on Mickey Rourke for his role as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, so did he prod Portman into six months of exercise and ballet training. Though she has a dance double for certain shots, Portman is physically plausible in the role, both in her body's newly sinewy contours and in the glimpses we get of her at the ballet.

Black Swan asks the 29-year-old star to do two things that haven't been much demanded of her: dance and act. Her strong, delicate beauty has dazzled Hollywood ever since she made a splash at 13 playing a gunman's adopted waif in The Professional, but her performances have been variable at best. Excellent in projects directed by Mike Nichols (a naive, volcanically lovelorn Nina in the 2001 Central Park production of The Seagull; part of the quartet of broken lovers in the 2004 film Closer), Portman can also look utterly stranded on screen — bereft of an actor's most rudimentary tools — in, say, Amos Gitai's Free Zone or as George Lucas' lamentable Queen Padme.

Her turn in Black Swan, if it truly impresses American moviegoers, won't be the sort that caps the steady maturing of a gifted actress. It will have the shock of the new. That helps explain the outbreak of rapture among some critics here, for Black Swan is, among other things, a document of Portman's obsessive dedication to give a performance beyond what is expected of her — and, no less, Aronofsky's need to wring every raw feeling from his leading lady. That relationship is up on screen too: of a man trying to get a brilliant performance out of a young woman by dominating and manipulating her.

In the Black Swan script by Andres Heinz and Mark Heyman, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps at a prime New York ballet company. Thomas Leroy (the excellent Vincent Cassel), the company's Balanchine-like choreographer, is about to stage his own version of Swan Lake, which will emphasize a woman's tragic duality. One dancer is to incarnate both the pure White Swan and her evil, sensual twin, the Black Swan. Nina, sweet and driven, has the technique to play both roles but the temperament for only one. "I just want to be perfect," she says, and Thomas counters, "Perfection is also about letting go."

He gives her the part anyway, believing he can find the Black Swan within her. He goads Nina ("The only person standing in your way is you") and insults her ("You could be brilliant, but you're a coward"). He tries arousing her with a kiss, and if that doesn't work ("That was me seducing you," he says afterward, "when it should have been the other way around") he'll give her "a little homework assignment ... go home and just touch yourself." (Nina's bedroom masturbation scene has caused some avid commentary on the Internet.) And as she probes to both summon her own Black Swan and control it, she begins to suspect that she is cursed, haunted, pursued by someone or something. When she is alone, lights suddenly flick out; menacing figures seep out of the shadows; she emerges from a bathroom stall to see the accusation "WHORE" scrawled on the mirror. Getting a leading role is a freaking nightmare.

Three suspects — all women, all dancers — quickly emerge: Nina's suffocating mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), with whom she lives, never got out of the corps and blames the girl for "the career I gave up to have you." Beth (Winona Ryder), the company's longtime prima ballerina, has been consigned by Thomas to early retirement; she blames Nina for filching her position. Lily (Mila Kunis), fresh from San Francisco, lacks Nina's technique but has a passion Thomas responds to. Now No. 1, Nina feels Lily's hot breath on her neck as either her successor or her seducer. To put showbiz competition in All About Eve terms, every Margo Channing must have an Eve Harrington. Before she was cast as the Swan Queen, Nina was the up-and-coming Eve; now she's Margo, the uneasy star. Rivalry, envy, the bloom of maturity followed by the clock's tick of mortality — they all come with the star on the door. But would any woman try to drive another woman to madness, or death, to achieve career satisfaction? To put it another way: Is Nina paranoid or persecuted? (It's possible to be both.)

There's a piquancy in seeing Portman, who succeeded Ryder in adorably intense elf roles, fill a similar function here, and there's also the rare and pleasing spectacle of four Jewish actresses getting to emote like mad in the same movie. Gee, it's a real woman's movie, and not one of those strenuous heart-warmers about female companionship and compromise.

Black Swan isn't an advance. It's a throwback, in three ways. First, to what Freud called "the return of the repressed" — that repressed desires created severe neuroses. Second, to the Method cult notion of empathizing with a character until you become it. (As Laurence Olivier legendarily told Dustin Hoffman when the younger star was agonizing over his motivation in the tooth-drilling sequence of Marathon Man: "Dear boy, why not just try acting?") Third, and most reductively, to the ancient commandments of the horror genre, which teach that a young woman is either a virgin, who's pure enough to fight the demon, or a whore, who somehow deserves to be killed (especially when she's just had sex). The idea of a healthy eroticism is alien to these films; they allow no middle ground. I'm pretty sure this is a guy's idea of a woman's sexuality. Black Swan had women in front of the camera, men as the director and writers and cinematographer.

The young Aronofsky made three startling, status-quo-smashing movies: Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. Whatever glory he won for The Wrestler, that film was lazy visually and clichéd in its telling. Black Swan is much more sophisticated, using The Wrestler's stalking camera and grainy images but bringing sensational dexterity to the dance scenes. As for Portman's work, if not fully convincing, it's wondrously committed — yes, just the sort of daredevil achievement the Academy loves to reward. Still, I'd hold off on Oscar promises (except in headlines) until we see whether the last months of 2010 bring us any great performances, not just great stunts.