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Why Natalie Portman won Best Actress for Black Swan at the Oscars

Natalie Portman gives a virtuoso performance as Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky's film Black Swan. In the hands of a less capable actress, the role of a sensitive ballet dancer wrestling with her demons would come across as melodramatic, patronizing and over the top. But with Portman, each nervous inflection is played with such delicious subtly that one could never imagine anyone else in the role. The film has often been loosely categorized as a thriller, a character study of a complete mental breakdown. It's all these things on the surface, but at its core is really something so much more.

We watch Nina slowly descend into madness as she prepares to play the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. Comprised of both Light and Dark, the angelic White Swan is in direct contrast with her darker alter ego. It is the subtext of Portman's portrayal of the Black Swan that reveals what the film really is: a portrait of a dancer emerging into the full expression of her artistic being. The film portrays the quest for perfection, and, paradoxically, the search for freedom from the confines of perfectionism. Nina, perhaps unconsciously, yearns to be released from the psychological bonds that hold her. Freedom is a concept that remains purely academic for her, until she finally understands it from experience. True art is rooted in imperfection. Nina's tragic journey to achievement, via the empowerment of her imperfections, is a haunting one.

 

Black Swan confronts the audience with a range of scenes depicting both reality and fantasy. It is left to the viewer to make judgments about what is real and what is imagined. We experience the film from Nina's point of view, sharing in her confusion, fear, and ultimate terror. This makes for a very powerful cinematic experience. My Black Swan partner in crime turned to me halfway through the film and said: "This movie makes me really uncomfortable."

Upon a second viewing, I approached the film with a decidedly metaphysical interpretation. Aronofsky's masterpiece is really about what it means to be an artist. Nina's approach in playing a character that is diametrically opposed to who she is in everyday life is highly methodical. More than merely adopting an external persona, it is as if Nina channels a dark spiritual energy which spills into her life with immutable results. In the past, Nina blindly played out the traditional roles predetermined for her: dancer, daughter, sweet girl. Any identity beyond these makes her visibly uncomfortable. So much so that when asked to introduce herself, Nina replies automatically, "I'm a dancer," rather than with her name. 

After being handpicked as the principal dancer by the ballet company's director, played by the formidable Vincent Cassel, the era of passively accepting her fate is over. In its absence, Nina becomes someone who challenges rules and authority, thrashing against the walls of the metaphoric box that has imprisoned her.

Signs of Nina's yearning for independence have always been there, like her petty thievery from the woman she admires but fears, or her scratching herself until she bleeds as a way to gain dominance over her own body. But with her sudden rise in the company, Nina does whatever it takes to shed her skin. She lets the character she is playing inform her real-life behavior, to the point of losing all sense of reality. As the twin concepts of freedom and independence slowly but surely take root, Nina demands the right to sacred space, personal ambition, and ownership of her sexuality.

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