In art of every kind, there is a long tradition of artists attempting to express and explore the raw artistic process in their work. Often they try and communicate the spark that allows them to create personal work, or the grinding difficulty of creating a new piece in the face of a block. Films like Amadeus explore the distinction between the artistic work of a genius and the work of someone who is merely good, but rarely do we see that gap bridged. Black Swan is a film that catalogs one artist’s transition from being a skilled craftswoman to a brilliant performer, darkly dramatizing the internal and external pain required to do so. It is equal parts Cronenberg and early Polanski, simultaneously a thriller, a horror film, and a psychological drama, and it is undoubtedly and definitively Aronofsky. Even though the script was written by others (from a story he and Portman have discussed for years), Black Swan is perhaps the film that represents the director best, incorporating themes and imagery he has toyed with since Pi into a film that is as refined as it is loose and personal.
The film takes place in the difficult arena of world-class ballet in NY. Our main character Nina –Natalie Portman in a watershed performance– is an extremely skilled and dedicated ballerina who, after years of dancing on the side, is put front and center in the New York City Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake. Vincent Cassel portrays the ballet’s director Thomas Leroy, a man that treads a thin line between being a complete scumbag and an inspired guide to his performers. He uses seduction and sexuality to extract passion out of his dancers, though a sense of exploitation is always present. Nina is a naive, delicate dancer who desperately wants to be perfect but clings to technical proficiency for dear life, never letting herself get lost in a performance. Leroy hones in on this delicacy and comes close to casting her as the lead swan, but makes it very clear he has no confidence in her ability to portray the darker, seductive black swan. When Nina literally bites back at his attempts to sexually blackmail her for the part, he sees the spark of the black swan and gives her the role. Lilly, a free-spirited girl in the company played by Mila Kunis, is Leroy’s second choice for the swan part and he points to her passion as the spirit Nina should be embodying. The film follows Nina’s journey to the first performance of Swan Lake, which forces her to confront a darker side of herself as she explores indulgence and sexuality. The scars of this journey manifest quickly however, and increasingly terrible grotesqueries plague Nina’s mind, body, and home.
The darker side of ballet is represented by two characters- Nina’s former ballerina mother (Barbra Hershey) and the star ballerina she is replacing in the company, Beth (Winona Ryder). The two are clear examples of failure and temporary success respectively, and both are weighty symbols in Nina’s life. It’s no coincidence that the most violent and unsettling events of the film involve these two as Nina’s mother clings hysterically to a daughter on the verge of escape, and Beth simply spirals and disintegrates when the spotlight is removed.
None of these casting choices are particularly radical, but every actor brings their full potential. Portman is playing childish and naive here, with a little-girl cadence to her voice that would be gratingly obvious if it weren’t for the bravery and abandon with which she plays Nina’s darker, exploratory moments. I am certainly not qualified to judge the authenticity of her ballet skills, but Portman’s control of her body and movement sells her as a skilled ballet dancer to a layman such as myself (and anecdotally I have heard trained dancers praising her performance as well). Aronofsky takes Portman to dark places of vulnerability and she handles them well, sometimes uncomfortably so. We’re used to Kunis as the devil-may-care bad girl, but she’s natural in Black Swan in a way I’ve never seen her manage. Her character might be the weakest spot of the movie though, especially in the early parts of the film where there may be one or two too many devil-may-care moments of her bursting in late or laughing inappropriately. It’s quite possible this is to create the effect of false expectations though, as the obviousness of the character gives way to Nina’s much more complex relationship with her later on. Cassel is excellent as the director, and feels natural in the well-coiffed, pretentious world of fine art dancing, bringing that perfect balance of Euro-charm and Euro-sleaze. Ryder only has a few key scenes but nails them all, especially what might be the most shocking and gruesome scene in the film. Finally there is Hershey, who unleashes the overbearing, twisted mother figure in a slow burn that explodes along with the rest of the film.
Even though he has returned to collaborating with D.P. Matthew Libatique, who shot his first three films, Aronofsky continues exploring the documentary style employed for The Wrestler. Familiar handheld shots that patiently follow behind Nina’s long walks through the ballet studio connect it with Aronofsky’s last film on the surface, but the similarities run much deeper. There is an inherent sickness in Nina, that drives her quest for perfection, same as The Ram, and the film doesn’t shy away from this, instead treating the borderline mental illness with humanity. Also like The Wrestler, which was anchored on Mickey Rourke’s soul-bearing performance and brutal physical dedication, Black Swan‘s most vivid images are of the skin-peeling and bone-breaking horrors that befall Nina’s body- the difference being the supernatural mist that shrouds Black Swan.
The film is unabashed filled with body horror- every trip to the mirror promises a new disgusting discovery as Nina accumulates more bizarre physical reactions to the stress of her leading role. In many ways Black Swan could be viewed as a beautiful, ornate reinterpretation of Cronenberg’s The Fly with artistic endeavor replacing scientific ambition, and physical transcendence replacing physical disintegration. Toss in a touch of Polanski’s Repulsion and you should have a pretty clear idea of the themes the film is interested in.
The film is straightforward (less so than The Wrestler perhaps, but certainly more linear than The Fountain) but the reality of any scene can be legitimately questioned, and even if you have a firm idea what (if anything) did not actually “happen,” what that means for the scenes that did actually occur is up to your own judgment. As Nina internalizes the role of the black swan, gooseflesh rashes, small feathers, and other physiological events suggest the changes are not simply mental, while also suggesting Nina’s grip on reality is more tenuous than we may have earlier guessed.
Like any master filmmaker, Aronofsky employs sound to achieve effects that images alone cannot. Early in the film a hail of fluttering wings is embedded in a passing subway and you know right away that your ears will be cuing you as much as the imagery. The horrors that show up in Nina’s story are backed by intense sound design, as well as another remarkable score from Aronofsky’s most important collaborator Clint Mansell.
Despite the frosty response Lilly receives from Nina when she first tries to befriend her, they become companions and soon plunge into a world of partying and drugs. Lilly is the catalyst for many of the changes we see in Nina, this leads the way for the much ballyhooed sexual encounter between Portman and Kunis- it’s a scene shot and cut in a way that manages restraint despite being intensely sensual, the sound and feel of the scene being much more graphic than than the actual imagery. What matters in this scene and others like it though, is the powerful shock that registers on Nina’s face as she steps past her lifelong boundaries. The sex scene is naturally bound to get more attention, but the representation of Nina’s changing world is achieved nowhere better than a dreamy sequence in a club which has the two dancing, exposed by multi-color strobe lights. The photography and editing are utterly gorgeous here- you feel their long night of unhinged partying while the supernatural terror creeps in from the sides. The contrast between the mindless dancing here and the careful ballet of the rest of the film is profound.
Black Swan is the kind of film that, for those with which it does not “click,” drives a wedge of distance with its exploration of horror/thriller filmmaking and extreme treatment of… well, everything. This is not a quiet film, nor is it afraid to bring its subtext to the surface. It is ballet. It is opera. The strokes are bold. Mansell’s beautiful score (often a rework of source music from the original ballet) is booming and aggressive. And while a smug or dismissive viewer can write off the film for its “obvious” metaphors, they then lose the opportunity to engage the film and enjoy the subsurface machinations that make this as triumphant a piece of theater as it is a piece of filmmaking. Costumes, props, and set dressing all make sense and fit perfectly but could be considered on-the-nose. Of course the costumes for Nina are constantly white, and black for Lilly. Of course most of the film takes place in front of mirrors. Of course Nina’s obsessive mother does nothing but endlessly paint portraits of her daughter… It’s when the costume changes start reflecting a different set of character traits though, or when the mirrored backgrounds recursively become gloomy tunnels that reflect nightmares, or those paintings give hints of how unstable Nina’s world has become… Black Swan owns its symbolism, paying off the visual metaphors in the grandest, most operatic sense possible.
Despite the mirrored characters and shifting reality, there is no big twist or lazy rug-pull awaiting you at the end of the film. Like all of Aronofsky’s films, there is only the crescendo that explodes with the cumulative power of everything that came before it. The importance of real vs. dream, text vs. subtext all dwindles, deferring instead to an ending that seems both inevitable and unbelievable. There isn’t a puzzle to solve or a time line to figure out, only the sacrifice of an artist to admire. Aronofsky brings the suffering, raw expression of art and lets it burst forth on the screen in a manner that may seem self-aggrandizing to some, and heart-stoppingly beautiful to others. If you have any empathy for the slings and arrows (self-imposed or external in origin) that artists suffer to bring us the work that enriches our lives though, you will see the Black Swan as a remarkable journey, unmatched this year.
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