Black Swan - Directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder - Rated R
"It was perfect." I find it hard to disagree.
Director Darren Aronofsky is on a tortured performer kick…and he can stay on that kick as far as I’m concerned. First, he made 2008’s The Wrestler (my favorite film of that year), a film about a washed up wrestler striving to reclaim both his professional and personal life. Now, with Black Swan, Aronofsky looks at the beginning of a career rather than the end, but the professional and personal struggles of a performer are still the center of attention.
Black Swan takes place in the world of New York City ballet, which may be off-putting to some. I admit that I was not exactly thrilled to hear that Aronofsky’s next film was going to be about ballet. Of course, I was completely wrong to doubt the filmmaker. Ballet is just the backdrop for a truly disturbing psychological drama (and/or horror) film featuring an amazing performance by Natalie Portman.
Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a soft-spoken and sheltered young woman trying to reach the top of her ballet troupe. Perhaps “sheltered” is too weak a word. Scenes in Nina’s apartment, which she shares with her former ballerina mother (a very effective Barbara Hershey), feel like prison scenes. Nina’s mother seems to hear everything and is unwilling to allow Nina the smallest of privacies for more than a few moments.
It doesn’t help that Nina has a physically and mentally demanding job. She is trying to win the lead in a version of “Swan Lake,” which is being produced by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is known for being a bit too intimate with his dancers. Nina performs well and she is a perfectionist, but this role requires her to be the White Swan (perfect and pure) and the Black Swan (spontaneous and seductive). Therein lies the problem. Becoming the Black Swan means bending the rules and rules are what keep Nina sane, although one could argue whether or not sanity is worth it if such a sheltered life is required to retain it.
Nina’s sanity is also tested by the idea of becoming obsolete. Thomas’s former “little princess” Beth (Winona Ryder in a powerful and unstable performance) is taking a forced retirement at a relatively early age and Nina is filling the void. There is a bit of guilt there, but that is not the troubling aspect of the situation. Just as Nina is getting her moment to shine, Lily (Mila Kunis), a younger and more confident dancer, shows up.
Finally, add sexuality into the stress pile. As stated above, Nina is sheltered and treated like a child, so serious boyfriends have never really existed for her. Suddenly she is facing Thomas and being challenged to be sexy in her new role. Thomas believes that the Black Swan role must be seductive. Then there’s Lily, who represents this forbidden sexuality that has been festering in Nina for years.
Lily works as a foil to Nina in many ways and that is the crux of the film. Black Swan is all about duality. This is where the psychological horror element comes into play. The movie is told through Nina’s perspective, so we see what she sees, and it is disturbing at times. This film demands an attentive viewer. Characters’ faces change, physical transformations appear to take place, and art seems to move. The surroundings of the character are telling as well. Much like Stanley Kubrick, Aronofsky is a director that demands you pay attention to the sets.
Some of the aspects of the sets are obvious; there are mirrors everywhere, so you’re constantly looking at a reflection of Nina…or are you? You know, that basic identity paranoia stuff. But look around Nina’s apartment and you’ll see little touches…like the butterfly wallpaper. Most films don’t deserve that close viewer attention; Black Swan does.
Black Swan deserves an attentive ear, too. Go ahead and enjoy the classical music and the entrancing original score by the always impressive Clint Mansell, but pay attention to the little sounds. The similarity of a striking lighter’s sound to the sound of a pervert on the subway (sounds weird, I know, but the scene transition that takes place when those sounds occur is interesting). The flutter of wings that sounds eerily similar to two subway trains passing. This movie is full of nuances like that.
The comparison to Kubrick above is not done lightly. I consider Kubrick to be the best director of all time and I only throw out a comparison if I find it truly worthy. With Black Swan, I’m starting to think of Aronofsky as a filmmaker on the same level as Kubrick. He has developed a signature sound and visual style and he has that ability to make hypnotic scenes turn into nightmares in seconds. The scene in mind is the fundraising event. The scenes melt together like the ballroom scenes in The Shining or the Christmas party scene in Eyes Wide Shut. Then things get strange in the bathroom. That is just an example of how precisely similar the two filmmakers can be. The truth is they are quite different in overall style.
Kubrick would have filmed the ballet sequences as you would see them from the best seat in the house. (I am aware that Kubrick did film a ballet sequence in his early years for Killer's Kiss, but I feel that that was early enough in his career that he had not developed a signature style just yet.) Aronofsky sends the camera along with the dancer. No offense to the art of ballet, but I don’t want to see a beautiful, lengthy production of “Swan Lake.” I would rather follow a single dancer into the foray and let the camera be part of the story and the struggle. It is extremely effective and the ballet scenes end up being as intense and beautiful as anything I’ve seen this year.
The aesthetics of Black Swan are undoubtedly superb and the style definitely adds to the substance of the film, but a lot of credit goes to the (basically first-time) screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin. That lengthy summary above concerning the character of Nina? It’s because of their screenplay. There are so many elements in this story that work and that are intriguing that to summarize Nina as simply “troubled” would be a disservice to the character. (I write this wholeheartedly as a man who hates the wasted space of summary.) Nina is easily one of the best written characters on screen this year. Thankfully, Natalie Portman inhabits her in the performance of her career and the performance of the year.
The casting of Portman adds its own part in the story of a woman breaking out of her shell. Sure, Portman has had her edgier roles (Closer), but she is usually the sweet girl that no one worries about. The expectations an audience may have for her help the performance very much, but they don’t make it. She shows true dedication and ability in this film. In a movie about transformation, I truly believed in her character’s changes. That’s another connection to The Wrestler, Aronofsky gets a performance from Portman that rivals Mickey Rourke’s.
The final connection to The Wrestler? It’s one of my favorite films of the year. Black Swan works on every level for me. The direction, writing, production values, music, and acting are all top notch. It is a film I plan on revisiting over and over in the future. Much like a Kubrick film, I imagine I’ll see something new and different each time.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Yes, Portman and Kunis have a bit of a love scene in this movie. There is a point behind it and while it is quite sexy, it quickly gets creepy and weird.
I loved the first time one of the portrait's eyes moved in Nina's apartment. It happens so quickly it's easy to miss, but very effective if you happen to catch it.
Another connection to The Wrestler: both films end at the end of a performance with a crowd cheering. Gutsy, but appropriate. Also, fading out to the sound of applause is kind of a cool way to end a film.
Oh, and the last line of "It was perfect"? Gutsy as hell. If the movie sucked, then Aronofksy would catch a lot of crap, though I highly doubt he cares what I, or any other more accomplished critic, thinks about his work.