Black Swan (2010)
Cut from the same cloth as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) — both examine a physically demanding and widely unappreciated art — Black Swan is a melodramatic mash of art-house cinema and psychosexual thrills. Clearly influenced by filmmakers Roman Polanski, The Pianist (2002), David Cronenberg, The Fly (1986), and David Lynch, Mulholland Dr. (2001), Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a bold undertaking into the shadowy roots of the human mind, exploring both artistic desire and the consuming nature of obsession.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina working at a New York City ballet company whose life, like many others around her, is completely consumed by dance. Pressure is amplified at home as Nina lives with her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbra Hershey) — a resentful former ballerina — who is zealously consumed by her daughter’s career, suffocating and controlling Nina’s life at every waking moment. When artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), decides to replace the dance troupe’s former star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), for the opening production of their new season — Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — Nina is his first choice for the lead. However, new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), a dark-haired nymphet, catches Leroy’s eye and is hired as Nina’s understudy. Since Swan Lake requires a dancer who can convincingly portray both sides of the Swan Queen — the grace and virtue of the White Swan and the sexuality and passion of the Black Swan — Nina, who effortlessly fits the role of the White Swan, must strive to learn lust and sensuality from her rival Lily, who is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two dancers compete for the spotlight, their rivalry turns into a twisted friendship, which forces Nina to uncover her darker side — a recklessness which threatens to devour her.
As Black Swan is told exclusively through Nina’s perspective, we quickly suspect that she may not be the most reliable narrator as we witness her delusions and anxiety-induced hallucinations throughout the picture while witnessing her transformation into the Black Swan. Natalie Portman’s, V for Vendetta (2005), startlingly intense and beautiful portrayal of Nina drives the picture forward as her diversity is exhibited — Portman portrays both the innocent, sexually repressed young woman and the downright terrifying Black Swan to perfection — verifying her acting merit as a skilled performer and, after winning every Best Actress category — including Golden Globe and Academy Award — in which she was nominated, it’s difficult to disagree. To prepare for the role, Portman apparently began dance training a year before principal photography began, drawing on her prior ballet experience from ages 4 to 13. ABT professional ballerina Sarah Lane acted as Portman’s dance double for complex en pointe work, while special effects wizards digitally placed Portman’s head on Lane’s body in several dance sequences.
The supporting cast all complement Portman’s extraordinary performance with Vincent Cassel, Irreversible (2002), fully encompassing the slimy and twisted Thomas Leroy; Cassel has compared his character to George Balanchine, the co-founder of New York City Ballet stating that Balanchine was ‘a control freak, a true artist using sexuality to direct his dancers.’ Similarly Milla Kunis, Ted (2012), delivers a level of depth few believed was possible for the actress with her character Lily — she commands the screen with every new scene — delivering an entrancing, star-making piece. Just like Portman, Kunis spent three months practicing with a ballet instructor for the role — five hours a day, seven days a week — where Kunis learned how to dance en pointe, however similarly to Portman, ABT ballerina Maria Riccetto doubles for her in several dance sequences. Barbra Hershey’s, Falling Down (1993), Erica — Nina’s horrid mother — brings a level of intensity to proceedings virtually matching Portman’s energy by her sheer ferociousness alone.
Skilled director Darren Aronofsky — complete with his trademark behind-the-head vantage shots — maintains a sense of momentum throughout the entire picture — the film does take some time to take-off — however, Black Swan is at its best when its horror elements start to emerge and become more prominent in the film’s second half as darkness begins to devour Nina; granted more could have been done while building the tension and dismay as some of the film’s real thrills are somewhat short-lived. Thematically, Black Swan explores the idea of control and the ramifications of losing oneself at the hands of artistic desperation; Aronofsky shows us that sometimes while striving to attain our desires, we risk losing a part of ourselves, a part that we may never fully be able to recover. Furthermore, Aronofsky successfully depicts the backstabbing, trash-talking and two-faced nature associated with the competitive world of dance, adding a sense of realism to the film’s overall aesthetic. Choreographer Benjamin Millepied — who Natalie Portman met on the set of Black Swan and eventually married — adds to the production and delivers some exquisitely stunning dance sequences, which he apparently altered slightly to allow Portman and Kunis to do most of their own dancing while remaining authentic and professional.
The picture’s production design and visual palette — contrasting blacks and whites — both play an integral part of the story-telling process here as they frequently represent good and evil, innocence and darkness and quite often reflect the true motivations and intentions of both characters and film-maker. Additionally, the visual effects remain subtle enough to blur the line between fantasy and reality and are not excessive or overdone like many other films of this genre. Sound design plays a large role in the film’s psychological terror and the haunting score by Requiem for a Dream (2000) composer Clint Mansell — which is a variation on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, but played backwards and in a distorted manner — assists the incredibly tragic and dreaded tone of Nina’s subjective nightmares, fitting the film and Aronofsky’s vision to a tee.
Despite the picture’s rather predictable narrative and extraneous lesbian sex scene — interestingly enough, the scene occurs 69 minutes into the film — Black Swan is entrancing filmmaking from one of Hollywood’s best, elevated by Aronofsky and his talented team’s hard work and further solidifying his position as a master filmmaker. Contrary to its subject matter, Black Swan isn’t essentially about ballet and doesn’t necessarily portray Swan Lake accurately, which may be slightly disappointing to dancers, otherwise this dramatic tale of this deranged woman’s decent into darkness is engrossing filmmaking for the most part.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Black Swan is released through 20th Century Fox Australia