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Natalie Portman isn’t what you’d describe as a naturalistic actress. Since her startling childhood debut in Leon, her unusual intensity and heightened performing style occasionally made her seem like a creature out of time – more comparable to the classic leading ladies of the 1940s and 1950s than her youthful contemporaries. In some of her less successful adult roles, these qualities occasionally read as awkward or excessively mannered. In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, she found the perfect vehicle to cement her status as a bona fide movie star.
Like The Wrestler before it, Black Swan pulls back the curtain on an oft misunderstood art form and exposes the enormous physical and emotional toll required of the performers who master it. It’s also a surreal, occasionally hysterical body horror that pays homage to genre classics like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, while also borrowing liberally from backstage dramas such as All About Eve.
Pulling all of these disparate influences together is a high-wire act, and it often falls to Portman to hold the thing together. With the movie apparently taking place entirely from her character’s perspective, she’s in practically every frame of the movie. When a movie demands as much from the audience as Black Swan does, a single false note in the performance could sink the whole thing, and Portman’s palpable terror and intensity as the tormented Nina Sayers deservedly earned her that year’s Academy Award for Best Actress.
I watched Aronofsky’s highly divisive Mother! last year, and while I appreciated Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, I found her to be fundamentally miscast in the role. It made me wish Portman and Aronofsky would become regular collaborators, as each manages to bring out the best in the other in ways I haven’t seen in any of their individual projects subsequently.
In this week’s episode of Beyond The Box Set, we set ourselves the task of imagining what might have been if Portman and Aronofsky had come back for a second act. Joined by special guest Olumide Ajulo, we discuss everything from the movie’s frequent use of doubling and unreliable narrative to Winona Ryder’s small but quintessentially Winona supporting performance as an unhinged former ballet queen.
We also brainstorm a few drinking games – largely to help us to get through all the gross-out moments involving bleeding fingernails and facial stabbings – and come up with some sequel ideas that include an 80s-set origin story, a Pitch Perfect spin-off and Nina’s inevitably doomed attempts to return to the ballet in another iconic stage role.
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Next week, we’re celebrating a milestone with one of the most beloved films ever made. Are we really foolish enough to hope to improve it? Watch this space to find out…