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Portman’s Prize Worthy Performance

Shane Steinberg | Friday, January 21, 2011

“Black Swan” opens with a fragile ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), dancing the prologue of “Swan Lake” in the middle of a dimly lit stage as a lone violin plays eerily in the background. The music is as vulnerable as the ballerina and they exist harmoniously. Meanwhile, a figure stands in the near background, breathing heavily and watching intently. For a few moments, all is seemingly calm yet wrought with a brooding feeling, until the figure, a monstrous creature, rushes the ballerina, shattering the calm and causing both her and the music to descend into madness.

That is, in essence, the journey in Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the classic ballet, “Swan Lake,” a full-on descent into madness. He blends the same kind of restraint and great trust in his lead that enabled Mickey Rourke to mount a triumphant comeback in “The Wrestler.” With a penchant for flare and technicality, Aronofsky allows Portman to fall deeply into character and give a mesmerizing performance.

What enables Portman to operate so beautifully is that she portrays the progression of her character with exact emotional precision.

As a ballerina vying for the lead in “Swan Lake,” she approaches her naïve, focused and socially deprived self with an intensity that seems pure — white swan-like. Juxtaposed with her counterpart during their night out on the town, Lily (Mila Kunis, in a role that might open some doors for her as a serious actress), she comes off almost too controlled, just like her dancing, which is all technical and prided on “perfection” as she sees it. Lily, on the other hand, is everything the black swan should be — imprecise, sexual and wicked.

It’s during those moments when the two rivals cross that Portman for the first time gives herself unto a different self, if you will. That alternate self is the black swan. Although the true transformation and all the lurid scenes that arrive with it don’t actually come until later, there’s a noticeable shift in Portman’s performance during the scene with Lily. At some point between storming out of a club not knowing what just happened and her ensuing psycho-sexual fantasy, Portman’s innocence and purity are abandoned and she is no longer the “sweet girl” her mother wishes she be.

Much like in “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky takes a step back at this point, shines a light on his lead, and allows his actor to get swept up in his fever hallucination of a film. Just like in the beginning, Portman stands center stage for the rest of the way through, rarely ever leaving the frame as every moment draws her nearer to her emotional and mental collapse and the pure deliriousness that follows.

Some of the best performances come when actors or actresses give themselves unto their director’s uncompromising vision. Charlotte Gainsbourg gave arguably the best performance of any actor last year in “Antichrist,” which won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, because she allowed director Lars von Trier to instill in her the same state of mental anguish that he reportedly felt during filming. Likewise, David Lynch has always been able to get the best out of his female leads because he bewilders them, causing them to feel the same kind of fear towards the role and the process that he wants them to show as their characters come mentally undone before our eyes.

In the case of “Black Swan,” Portman neither gives herself unto Aronofsky nor does he try to push his vision or lofty ambitions on her. Instead, he operates almost like that monster creeping in the background at the film’s open, panting, while holding a shaking camera as the object of his eyes, Portman, feels deathly afraid by his presence.

“Black Swan” isn’t necessarily anchored by Portman’s disarming performance but is instead made all the more visceral because she is so unnerving as such a dynamic role. In this year’s best performance bar none, Portman’s embodies the fragility of the white swan and allows fear and dread wash over her as she unravels, making the film genuinely horrifying.