Perfection has a price
(Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, US, 2010, 108mins)
Darren Aronofsky has said that he intended Black Swan, his fifth film as director, to be a companion piece to its predeccessor The Wrestler, but in many ways the two pictures could not be more different. However, their similarities are also numerous. Both films push their stars to the limit – Mickey Rourke went to incredible lengths to perfect his physique for the role of a declining wrestling star, while Natalie Portman trained for 10 months prior to filming to become a proficient ballet dancer. It certainly shows, Portman looking emaciated yet beautiful as Nina, and flawlessly performing incredible dance scenes. Aronofsky has said “both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves”, and in both pictures he attempts to portray the extreme lengths these athletes go to in order to perfect themselves.
The plot of Black Swan appears simple but this belies an emotional complexity. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a sheltered, repressed dancer within a New York ballet company, and when she is cast as the prima ballerina in a production of Swan Lake, in which she must play the virginal White Swan and the sensual Black Swan her mental health suffers. This is in no way helped by the teaching methods of a lecherous tutor (Vincent Cassel), her obsessive, overbearing mother (Barbera Hershey), nor the appearance of a free-spirited and flirtatious addition to the company (Mila Kunis). As Nina attempts to unearth her dark side, her grip on reality begins to fade and she becomes a danger to herself and those around her.
This is a character piece and much can be said about the lead’s performance. Portman has had a run of insincere performances since the Star Wars prequels (with the exception of her beautifully warm turn in Zach Braff’s Garden State), but this is undoubtedly the picture to turn things around and reveal her as an enormously talented actress. Her portrayal of Nina is nothing short of wonderful, an aching, haunted and virtuoso turn. Much of Nina’s innermost thoughts are indicated by the tiniest movement, and her switching from virginal and innocent to vengeful and incandescently sensual is astonishing. There are similarly brilliant, if less challenging turns from the supporting cast – Kunis oozes charisma and humour as Lily, one of Nina’s rivals within the company, while Vincent Cassel utilises a sense of continental sexuality as the libidinous dance tutor pushing Nina to uncover her dark side, and Hershey unnerves as the typical stage mother. There is also an interesting cameo appearance from Winona Ryder as the bitter former prima ballerina whose place Nina is filling.
Aronofsky’s direction is claustrophobic and intense, blending a smooth theatricality in the dance scenes with a jittery handheld quality (similar to that of The Wrestler) when portraying Nina’s personal life. There are echoes of Cronenberg in moments of body horror; he amplifies the cracking of feet bones and the clipping of fingernails to unnerving effect, and pairs these sounds with extreme closeups of stomach churning grotesquery. The screenplay is deft and naturalistic, and is peppered with interesting moments of ambiguity (“Are you ready for me?”); Aronofsky allowing his visuals to do the talking. Meanwhile Clint Mansell will be criminally disregarded by the Academy for his score, due to its expert adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s original ballet. He adds menace and horror to the already stirring music.
What’s especially interesting about Aronofsky’s film is the aforementioned ambiguity. The film is littered with questions that are never meant to be answered, and even as it draws to a close, much of what has occured in the previous 100 minutes is never fully explained. It’s here that echoes of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are prevalent, while Argento and Cronenberg’s Videodrome are also clear influences, those films sometimes paling in comparison to some of the horror on show.
One of the best films of 2010, Black Swan is disturbing, ambitious and breathtaking filmmaking. Not only is it a stunning example of psychological horror, it is a haunting character piece and easily Aronofsky’s best.