Black Swan (2010): United States – directed by Darren Aronofsky
Rated R by the MPAA – contains sexual content, some language, disturbing material
With Black Swan Darran Aronofsky again proves why he is one of the most interesting directors of this generation. His string of films is perhaps only rivaled by Christopher Nolan’s. From the low budget mathematics thriller Pi to the most powerful film of the past ten(ish) years, Requiem for a Dream [thoughts here], and through The Fountain [review here] and The Wrestler he’s proved he can handle intense dramatic material with a special flair of style and resonance. With Black Swan he turns his attention to a new sub-genre.
Black Swan is a psychological drama horror/thriller. Think Mulholland Dr. meets All About Eve [review here], with a dash of Suspiria [review here] and Persona thrown in. It’s an intense portrait of obsession that would make Hitchcock proud, and is held together by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman. She stars as Nina, an aging ballet dancer in a reputable company in a large city.
The star of the show, Beth (Winona Ryder), is even more advanced in years, and there’s a chance that Nina might be picked to replace her. The picking is done by company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), a ruthless and genius ballet conductor. He has decided to open the season with a new version of Swan Lake, and needs a new Swan Queen to replace Beth and become the face of the company. Though the ballet has been done many times before, his is a new, dark twist on the classic.
So too is Black Swan a new, dark twist on the story of Swan Lake, examining themes of an intense obsession with perfection, a flawed character who descends into madness and reaps the dubious rewards of her misdeeds. The film is so concerned with Nina’s life, and Aronofsky is so fond of the close up that at times the intensity ratchets to a level nearly inducing claustrophobia. A majority of the shots are close or very close, almost entirely focused on one person or a face or a body part. There are several long shots, mostly highlighting Nina’s plight, but there are few medium shots. This, combined with a whirling dervish of cinematography, particularly during the ballet sequences, results in a visual aesthetic that is as gripping as the film’s themes. Mirrors haunt nearly every single scene, and at least half of the individual shots. Sometimes two mirrors cast different reflections of the same reality, and it is unnerving. Even the camera has been excised from direct shots into mirrors, and this, too, is horrifying.
Nina lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who once had a career as a dancer but gave it up for Nina. Now she paints portraits of Nina and fidgets with every aspect of her life. As the pressure mounts on Nina to be simultaneously perfect, in her role as the White Swan, and free-flowing, loose, and seductive as the Black Swan, she experiences a personal odyssey that threatens to rend her in two. Or perhaps she is already two, as suggested by the presence of Lily (Mila Kunis), a fresh new addition to the company from Los Angeles. Lily has no problem being seductive, and her free spirited dancing is a direct counterpoint to Nina’s technical proficiency. Their relationship is complicated, and themes not unlike All About Eve’s begin to flesh out their interactions.
But the focus is on Nina, particularly as it relates to her dual roles in the ballet. Some of these themes are a bit too obvious, such as the white that Nina constantly wears, contrasted with the dark colors Lily favors. Nina passes people on the streets, people wearing dark clothing and bearing a striking resemblance to herself. It is clear she is either already split, or will soon be split. The overabundance of mirrors, too, send the message a little too loudly that Nina struggles with her identity, and that there might be problems ahead for her. Nevertheless, the resulting climax is simultaneously beautiful, terrifying, and mesmerizing .
The latter half of the film devolves into wonderful madness. Unlike Jacob’s Ladder [review here] it never offers full exposition, thankfully, but it never veers too far astray to be totally abstract and unknowable. Questions will remain, and there will still be a mystery, but those turned off by Mulholland Dr.’s obliqueness will probably enjoy the puzzle. The ending, too, is pitch-perfect; it couldn’t end any other way.
Technically the film shines, from the dazzling cinematography to the engrossing intensity Portman displays. The soundtrack, again by Clint Mansell, is a reworking of Tchaikovsky’s original music, making it dark and ominous and oppressive. This was one area I was nearly disappointed, as the music lacks the mournfulness of some of Mansell’s other work, though this fault is shallow and partially a result of such high expectations. The music fits the story perfectly, but rarely hits the level of transcendence the scores for The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream reached.
Black Swan works on multiple levels. Technically it is fantastic, as a deep character study it is terrifying, and the larger themes it presents are remarkably clear and thoughtful; even if they may not be entirely original, they have never been explored quite this way. Aronosfky captures the competitive inner workings of the dance world, and imbues them with a richness that goes beyond anything real life could evoke. The themes of obsession, paranoia, and perfection resonate. Nina’s actions almost always make sense, but the path she has chosen leads only to destruction. Her quest requires misdeeds she’s not sure she can commit, acts that will only lead to intense suffering. The ending may appear to glamorize her eventual stardom, but it’s impossible to deny that she has paid a horrific price.
Black Swan isn’t perfect, but it is an unforgettable experience, particularly in a quiet theater. It reminds me of last year’s Antichrist [review here] in that it is a visceral, emotional film that demands attention and is provocative while still offering some substance. How much substance Black Swan offers will vary for each viewer, but for me the film’s various elements add up to one of the most fascinating films of the year.