Black Swan could quite easily be considered a sister film to Aronofsky’s previous feature. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s Randy was destroying both his body and his life through his dedication to wrestling. In Black Swan, we have Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers doing just the same thing with ballet. The difference is that after the earlier film, I had newfound respect for wrestlers, whereas the latter left me feeling that ballet is akin to psychological and physical torture, and should be banned.
From the very beginning of the film, Nina’s obsession with getting the lead role in Swan Lake consumes her every waking hour. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) hovers around her whenever she’s not in the studio, clearly living through her daughter since she herself never made the grade. Nina’s fixation shifts into high gear upon the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Nina sees as a threat to her career.
Black Swan traverses some very dark territory, indeed. In fact, it’s basically a horror movie. I’m a little concerned that any potential viewer who doesn’t dip into that genre is in for a very sharp shock indeed. Aronofsky’s film slips into body horror more than once – indeed, its quite Cronenbergian at times.
Natalie Portman is stunning as Nina. It’s quite an accomplishment that we still manage to feel sympathy for a character who is, from the very moment she first appears, forever ready to burst into tears. Despite the fact that all is not hunky dory from the beginning, Portman still manages to go deeper and darker as the film plays out. Kunis’ Lily is a wonderful counterpart to Nina, and Vincent Cassel – forever the bad guy – plays ballet director Thomas Leroy, whose ideas about getting the best possible performance from his dancers seem more in line with horse breaking than coaching.
Black Swan is shot in a similar hand-held style as The Wrestler, though the frequent excursions into psychological horror can be quite fantastical. The special effects in such moments are quite well done, and are so quick and shocking that one never has time to complain about their quality. Cleverly, Aronofsky opted to have the camera operator follow Nina around the stage as she dances, so we get a view of ballet that audiences have never seen before, putting us right in the action.
The sound design should also get special mention. We frequently hear the fluttering of wings during the scarier moments, and the roar of the crowd is heightened to quite a terrifying level. This blends perfectly with Clint Mansell’s score, which takes Tchaikovsky’s music and warps it into something dark and menacing. There are moments that sound somewhat like his work for Requiem for a Dream also (though minus the Kronos Quartet.)
Aronofsky’s film is horrifying and unrelenting, and it’s perhaps no surprise that with this and The Wrestler he’s ensconced himself once more in the more depressing side of human nature. Who can blame him when his only uplifting film (The Fountain) was a commercial flop that was met with incredibly hostile reviews? Black Swan is a difficult film to truly enjoy, but its brilliance cannot be denied.Rating: