With its lurid hallucinatory sequences, Black Swan is one of the least realistic movies of the year. But was Natalie Portman's real suffering an integral part of the production?
Portman told Entertainment Weekly that during shooting, "There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die. It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down." It seems like she's talking about her character, Nina Sayers, who is quite literally taken down by her role — but is she referencing her own experience as well? A.O. Scott thinks the answer is yes. He references Portman's famed weight loss for the role, and says, "Nina's psychological state is evidently part of the artifice of "Black Swan," but her body, subject to unimaginable (and sometimes unreal) mutations and mutilations, is the film's ground zero of authenticity." He concludes,
We can assure ourselves that Nina does not really turn into a bird. We also know, being sane and disciplined moviegoers, that Ms. Portman — pregnant and engaged (to the movie's choreographer) and happy in the wake of her latest professional triumph — is not Nina Sayers. But we also know, on the irrefutable evidence of our own eyes, and the prickly sensation of our skin, that she is.
By whittling herself down into an emaciated dancer's body with a demanding dancer's regimen, did Portman become Nina the way Nina seems to become a swan? Was she so captivating in the film because, like Nina, she allowed her performance to consume her? As Scott says, Portman shows every sign of being mentally sound (though his use of marriage and procreation as signs of mental health is a bit Yellow Wallpaper-y). But at the same time, her bodily transformation may have put her in touch, at least a little bit, with what Nina's tragic transformation might have been like.
As many have pointed out, praise of Natalie Portman's body-reshaping "discipline" has the disturbing feel of thinspo. And the idea that true artistic transcendence comes only with self-denial is damaging — especially for real ballerinas who have struggled with eating disorders. Add to that the idea that ladies are at their sexiest and most fascinating when they're in the middle of a psychotic break, and you have a film whose view of both gender and mental illness is skewed to say the least. And yet I think Scott's right that ultimately, Black Swan is about more than a Beautiful Crazy Girl and her starved frame. It's about "the relationship, in art, between technique and emotion." Because of the specific nature of her role and its preparation, Portman got to experience that relationship firsthand — and the film is both more problematic and more powerful for it.