Six years ago, in-between hedging New Year’s Resolutions and bundling up in the thick of winter, cinephiles were applauding Natalie Portman’s back-to-back Golden Globe and Oscar wins for her starring role in director Darren Aronofsky’s frenetic, frenzied, and beautifully fragile, Black Swan. Pregnant, pretty in pink, and jokingly thanking her “love,” Benjamin Miller, who glibly states in the film that he would never sleep with her (character), Natalie Portman was flush with personal and professional accomplishment.
It thus seemed like déjà vu just a couple weeks ago when Portman took to the red carpet again in a stunning Prada dress at the Globes, up again for the Best Actress nomination, albeit it in the acclaimed Jackie this go-round. Though in some ways it looked as if nothing has changed for Portman, she’s come a long way, baby. In these six years she wrote, directed, and starred in an adaptation of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness (2016), honed her acting capabilities in films that (undeservedly) received little attention like Jane Got a Gun (2016), and, very recently, spoke up above the gender wage gap in Hollywood, noting, “Compared to men, in most professions, women make 80 cents to the dollar. In Hollywood, we are making 30 cents to the dollar.”
Looking simply back to Black Swan, however, Portman’s previous dance at the Oscars was more than deserved thanks to a triumphant performance as Nina Sayers, a role of considerable physical and psychological demands. Nina is a woman trapped in the mindset of a young girl. She sleeps in a pink room full of stuffed animals where her mother tucks her in every night. Her voice is fluttery, high-pitched, and as wispy as the diaphanous tulle of a tutu.
Her sinewy body recalls Spencer Tracy’s comments on Katharine Hepburn: “[There’s] not much meat on her, but what there is is choice.” Nina is all choice: the cords in her neck pop during an arabesque, her back muscles brace as she pliés. Upon earning the leading role of the company’s production of Swan Lake, Nina slowly spirals into a paranoid pirouette of delusion, darkness, and destruction.
The film begins in a dream world of a lone Sayers performing. Already there is an uncertainty as to how much of the film (the film that we are about to see) is real or imagined. It’s a similar tenuous spectator position that films like The Double Life of Veronique (1991) or 3 Women (1977) concoct in their elusive, ambiguous narratives with similar themes of fractured female identity. In the opening scenes, Aronofsky emphasizes the physicality of Nina’s body with close-ups of her bruised and mangled feet, and sonic exaggerations of her joints cracking from the simple roll of her head. Though Nina is psychologically fragile and ensconced in a fixed mindset of achieving an unattainable perfection, Aronofsky’s shots and soundscape convey Nina’s bodily strength.
But for Nina, everywhere she looks is an erasure of her self or of her understanding of her self as a physical, whole, complete being. On the subway to rehearsal, she looks at herself in a smudged window—her reflection a blank blur. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches sight of a woman of a similar height and build to her own. These moments of mistaken recognition, or lack of recognition, recurrently plague Nina throughout the film. As she struggles to find her autonomy, her adulthood, and her ability to let go of the tyrannical grip of perfection, she constantly sees iterations of herself in subways, dance classes, and sidewalks.
The moments are brief, such as the eerie sequence when Nina walks toward a woman whose movements mirror her own. Her doppelgänger then flashes a seductive smile before Aronofsky cuts to a woman who is not, in fact, Nina’s darker (and sexier) twin. A similar (mis)recognition occurs when Nina sinks into a warm bath, briefly opening her eyes to look at the bathroom ceiling from underwater. The second time upon doing so she sees herself poised above her, a maniacal smile across her face as drops of blood muddy the clear water.
Aronofsky exaggerates these moments of misrecognition with the motif of mirrors throughout the film. While Nina searches the subway glass for a reflection that is not clear, she often suffers from visions; visions where her reflection takes on a life of its own. Alone in the middle of the night while rehearsing, Nina pauses while her reflection continues to slowly, and defiantly, turn around. The movement is menacing in its restraint. When she brings home Lily, a company member played by the flirtatious Mila Kunis, Aronofsky lingers on their reflections in a mirror that blend the two women into one another, as they separate, then merge, like an image in a kaleidoscope.
Lily, of a similar structure and coloring to Nina, embodies the effortless ease that Nina so desperately struggles to attain. She’s lazily lithe, exuding a sexual confidence that Nina does not yet know how to harness. As they stumble, giggling, into Nina’s bedroom, away from her disapproving mother, Nina finds that sexual spark with Lily in the now infamous lesbian love fest between the two. In more than one way, it’s the “girl on girl action” that Portman spoke of on Conan O’Brien while promoting the film.
Throughout the sex scene, Nina repeatedly mistakes Lily as a stranger or the iteration of herself that haunts her. The sex scene is not so much salacious fodder, as much as a sexual awakening for Nina—to put it plainly, she’s growing up. Aronofsky overtly symbolizes this in Nina’s concluding performance when the blood from a self-inflicted wound drips on her tights like menstrual blood. The dam of creative freedom (and womanhood) releases in a torrent as Nina spins across the stage, as if in a fever dream. Zadie Smith’s newest novel, Swing Time (2016), describes character Tracey’s steps as one might describe Nina’s: “Her arches were two hummingbirds in flight.”
For moviegoers of a certain age (including this author), Natalie Portman cemented her career in playing good girls with brains and balance; in other words, characters that teenage girls could look up to as role models. Portman’s Novalee may have a baby in Wal-Mart when she’s only 17 in Where the Heart Is (2000), but she’s also got an eye for photography and her pictures convey the depths of her compassion and commitment. As Ann in Anywhere but Here (1999), she got into Brown, and in the Star Wars prequels, she was a Queen, regal and unflappable.
In Black Swan, there’s a seemingly cataclysmic shift in the role for which Portman is known: the brainy, beautiful, sometimes slightly quirky girl. In Aronofsky’s film Portman, too, comes into acting adulthood. It is not just Portman’s physique that is noteworthy, but also her ability to convey instability and unadulterated fear. Her face crumples like the creases of a soft ballet shoe when crying, and Portman moves between acts of terror and acts of self-assurance as gracefully as a seasoned thespian.
“The only person standing in your way is you,” Nina’s punishing director Thomas reminds her. And for Nina, the battle of Black Swan is to break away from the confines of her childhood and her rigidity, to (as so many yoga teachers might tell you) just let go. By the end of the film, she is no longer like Leda laid in that white rush, but the rush itself, the movement that propels the performance toward perfection, toward self-actualization, toward applause and an ovation that may never end.