Emerging from the imagination of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan is a psychological thriller pervaded with insanity and madness which is juxtaposed with the graceful, gilded world of professional ballet. Unfolding with palpable intensity and nightmarish logic, the movie denotes the continuation of Aronofsky’s study into the resilience of the human body which was kicked off by his stunning 2008 picture The Wrestler. Additionally, just as The Wrestler was primarily a character study, Black Swan is a competitive ballet tale on the surface only, as Aronofsky instead exhibits more interest in exploring the corrosion of reality than the everyday routine of a ballet dancer. Originally, Aronofsky planned for Black Swan and The Wrestler to be one film. Because of this, Aronofsky considers Black Swan to be a companion piece to his earlier flick.
At the centre of the film is young, passionate ballet dancer Nina (Portman). Raised by her mother to be a ballet star, Nina is virtually flawless in her technique, but this comes at the expense of raw emotion and passion. Ballet director Thomas (Cassel) begins sensing a burgeoning fire within Nina’s porcelain shell, though, and decides to give her the lead role in the company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake. Startled by the decision, Nina begins a punishing rehearsal regime in order for her to nail the role’s complicated duality. See, the part requires somebody who can dance both the White Swan and her evil twin, the Black Swan. While Nina can ably execute the White Swan, she lacks the passion required to pull off the Black Swan. Adding to the pressure is Lily (Kunis), a fresh new dancer whom Nina is convinced is trying to steal her role. As opening night draws near, Nina’s mental state progressively unhinges – she becomes constantly plagued by macabre hallucinations, and continually grows more and more like the Black Swan she’s meant to be playing.
Like The Wrestler, Black Swan takes place in the competitive, insular world of a particular performance art. Interestingly, while one may not associate ballet with blood sports due to its gracefulness, Aronofsky’s perspective argues that dancing in fact may not be too far removed from fighting. In addition to this, Aronofsky opted for similar stylistic traits in both pictures, including raw, handheld camerawork and recurring shots of the camera tracking behind the protagonist as they move through various spaces. However, unlike The Wrestler, Black Swan is a significantly ambiguous and subjective movie – Aronofsky continually blurs the line between reality and Nina’s tormented psychological experience. With the narrative always growing in abstraction the further it presses on, it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from mind games. Aronofsky toys with this confusion to the extent that what might be considered a plot hole instead comes off as another piece of the deceptive puzzle.
The look and feel of Black Swan immaculately encapsulates the essence of a major New York ballet production, denoting another great success for the infinitely talented Aronofsky. Throughout the movie, an unsettling, creepy atmosphere pervades the proceedings, at first subtly and later with brutal vigour. By the final third of the movie, grim surrealism has taken control, leading to an enthralling conclusion that’s haunting and unforgettably unique. Even so, there is the sense that Aronofsky and his trio of screenwriters could have pushed things even further, but this is mere nitpicking. Further enriching the picture is Clint Mansell’s Tchaikovsky-fuelled musical score and the dreamlike, exquisitely detailed art direction courtesy of David Stein. Not to mention, the numerous dance sequences which litter the movie are absolutely stunning. From a technical perspective, the only drawback of Black Swan is a few notably obvious uses of digital effects.
Natalie Portman earned an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Nina. Portman was clearly committed to the role 100%; offering an exceptional, visceral performance that affects the actress down to her bones. Playing Nina required depth of emotion, and Portman’s portrayal never strikes a wrong chord. She suits the role physically, as well – for months prior to production, Portman endured a gruelling training routine to lose fat and gain muscle tone, and the outstanding results are on the screen for all to see. And as Lily, Mila Kunis is every bit as excellent as Portman; exhibiting the capacity to play more than featherweight roles in comedies and light dramas. In all likelihood, Black Swan is destined to be the most inappropriately watched and purchased art house film since Mulholland Drive on account of a number of erotic sequences involving Portman and Kunis. Meanwhile, in the supporting role of Thomas, Vincent Cassel perfectly embodies the tough, unsentimental ballet director, adding a dash of darkness and edginess to his roguishly charming personality. Credit is also due to Winona Ryder, who’s truly chilling in the scenes when she’s given the chance to shine.
Yet, while Black Swan deserves credit for depicting an extreme case of a psychotic breakdown and painting a picture of the struggle of the creative process, Aronofsky’s treatment of the film is more stylish and sensational than emotionally wrenching. Despite Portman’s best efforts, the film lacks an emotional core. Nina is committed to dancing, but who is she and what is left to save? Unlike Randy the Ram (from The Wrestler) or Sara Goldfarb (from Requiem for a Dream), Nina’s journey remains distant, as if it’s happening to a stranger. It is always sad to hear about a terrible ordeal which befalls a stranger, but it’s even sadder to those who knew the victim. Mind-fuck films are often like this; investing more in intellectual intrigue than emotional fulfilment. Therefore, Black Swan may be more ambitious than The Wrestler, but one could easily contest that Aronofsky’s 2008 picture is more satisfying.
All things considered, Black Swan is a beautifully-crafted picture filled with strong performances, an eye for the art of ballet, and a haunting uncertainty that will stay with you long after the credits have expired. Nevertheless, it fails to grab hold on the emotional level that resonated so strongly in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream.