Good actors achieve awakening in their audience the same emotions that they know how to convey in the play. In that huge emotional lab called cinema, empathy connects us with the experiences of the character. However, some figures occasionally show up who do not only play their role well but moreover perform in a brilliant manner and dive so deeply in the character that end up living it in full expression. That’s the case of Natalie Portman.
Members of Hollywood Academy knew very well how to reward Portman’s acting skills. I suspect that as soon as they watched The Black Swan they realized there was nobody else to compare the actress with. She went straight to the nomination and no scales to the statuette. 2011 Oscar was hers from the very first moment. The matter is that Portman is a young and living example of what seduces in the seventh art: an overwhelming emotional display.
Led by Darren Aronofsky (the same director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream), Portman truly turns into Nina and immerses us in the world of Ballet. In the world of pain, of bruised feet, of competition (“they were trying to eat you alive …”), of subordination, of effort, of the colleagues’ arrogance and the exclusion of ‘the oldest’. Furthermore: the subjugation to vocation, to the theatre company, to a mother that much resembles Carrie’s mom. Only that Carrie of ’76 (inspired in the character by Stephen King) murdered outwards. Nina murders inwards. And also inside of us.
Nina… sorry, Natalie, lost so much weight to embody pure duality that her face was skinny. She endured the camera just a few inches of her face the whole movie. Colossal. And to leave us speechless, her expressions said it all. Something that Paul Ekman –that psychologist who studied hundreds of facial emotional configurations one by one, tiny muscle by muscle- must surely be jealous of.
Nina displays such a repertoire of emotions that seldom has it found precedents. She is rich in self-demanding (“I want to be perfect”) and discipline, suffering with half grapefruit breakfasts and exhausting after-hour training sessions. But she crashes against her professor and his words: “perfection is not only about control. It is also about letting go…”. Still, she cannot make it. She finds pleasure impossible. A desperate need. Facing a turbulence of restless angst that the movie shots are able to capture very well by going constantly around her.
An impeccable work of Aronofsky as well, who provides all ingredients in a recipe for mind shattering. And Portman cooks it masterfully. She develops a perverse and burlesque game of opposites: sexual inhibition vs. wild abandon. Shame vs. audacity.
Nina takes us on a voyage throughout her face: anguish due to a stumble, puzzlement when being chosen Swan Queen, restrained joy, the beginning of how jealousy is brewed, suffocation under an enslaving mother that practically subjects her to anorexia and later coerces her to eat cake. Oxygen is gradually running out. The mocking of whom envies her, hypocrisy, scornful laughter, weakness merciless punished, merit that is never acknowledged, realizing the ambush… Her alter ego roams in an evasive manner or confronts her… Nina’s breathing speeds up …
And finally, terror. I don’t remember in the eyes of anyone a terrified expression such as Nina’s face when she comes out from water in the bathtub.
That is indeed good acting. It is enjoyable. It is delightful to see which emotional lands can the actors explore together with their directors, and to which fields they will take us.
Hopefully Natalie will provide us a lot more of that in the next years. Her swan was neither black nor white. It covered the full spectrum.