Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey
Release date: December 19, 2010
Combine the wonderful sounds of orchestral music with the delicate beauty and undulating movements of the ballerinas along with the indelible images that cinema provides for us and we get a truly ambitious film that is a mixture of poetry, sex, feverish dream, nightmares, and psychology. But most impressively it is an innovative fusion — of cinema and ballet — that has been rarely seen in the film medium. Here is one of the most complete films in recent memory. A film well in accord with what makes a film great, ingraining in its foundation a surplus of great performances, visionary direction, emotional music, and surprises emerging from a unique script that is not afraid to approach the unconventional.
And this unconventionality begins when Black Swan perverts all things good that usually have a tendency to comfort us, such as music, ballet, purity, motherhood, and desires. The film is, gloriously but disconcertingly, a catastrophic assault on all of these things, but more emphasis is shown on dethroning elegance from the world of ballet and perverting this world’s time-honored brilliance into something abhorrent. It is easy to accentuate gracefulness. Leave that for lesser talent. The task comes when one needs to find abhorrence in something already made beautiful and elevate it so that it drowns out beauty. Only then will one have fulfilled their duty as a visionary artist. Director Darren Aronofsky does just that by not wanting to embrace the easiness of replicating world class art (the ballet Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky). Instead he eradicates its original beauty and radiance, creating a film alteration of Swan Lake that is equally as stunning. Black Swan is an uncompromising masterpiece.
Black Swan is exquisitely and coherently made given that the film has an irrepressible impulse toward the psychologically insane. What should be un-interpreted is adequately transcended as Aronofsky represents confidently the all-elusive human mind. He sees the human mind in its most passionate, destructive, and lustful states. Black Swan is compelled to absorb the insanity that manifests itself within its main character ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). Never does Aronofsky avoid the overly-drastic or outrageous. He is working in a perverse psychological mode that is akin to early Roman Polanski. Other directors may have had doubts in harboring an inclination to voyeuristically witness the intense breakdown of an elegant and pure ballerina. Not Aronofsky, he interrogates ruthlessly and unhesitatingly the world of ballet until it has finally lost its resplendence, endowing this world with great abhorrence and tackling despair exuberantly. Never is he put off by the grave themes his film suggests.
Borrowing from the dark themes of his previous films (the self-destruction and fatal obsessions of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Wrestler), Aronofsky amplifies them even more so in Black Swan, for the environment of his new film is more intoxicated with psychological violence and despair than any of his previous ones. At the center of this world is Nina. A dedicated ballerina who lives with her overly protective mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina enjoys nothing more than performing. As the film begins she has just awoken from a dream in which she had mastered the Black Swan dance in Swan Lake. She dreams, fantasizes, and thinks only of ballet, allowing her entire existence to be governed by it. When Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director a fictional New York ballet company, announces that the company will be doing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in a more in-your-face manner, he lets the rest of the company know that he will need a ballerina who can faithfully dance the part of both the Black Swan and White Swan; the villainous swan and pure swan. His choice is Nina.
What ensues is a loss of composure on the part of Nina. Her dedication to mastering the role turns into a diabolical obsession. It begins with small occurrences that swell to reveal profound issues regarding Nina’s psychological state, such as her ceaselessly scratching her back, clipping her nails carelessly, and bandaging up her wounded ballerina toes. The arrival of rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) does not help Nina either. In fact it enhances Nina’s anxiety. Lily is Nina’s opposite. She possesses the ability to let herself go, to not be worried or obsessed with being perfect, an asset that Nina desperately needs if she wants to pirouette for a long time. When Thomas informs Nina to liberate herself from the shackles of perfection she subjects herself to in order for her to accomplish her duel role as both swans, she begins to lose her grip on reality. Soon she becomes suspicious that Lily may be wiggling her way in to taking the lead role, something Nina did unintentionally to an aging ballerina played by Wynona Ryder.
Portman gives a grueling performance that is beyond grandiose. Her performance explores the two states of mankind: the pure and the sinful (we see this division with the film’s fascination with mirrors). It is a performance that is haunting and beautiful, lyrical and convoluted, restrained and liberating; all similar qualities that are necessary ingredients that make the film great. When Portman’s Nina enters into unfamiliar territory with Lily, a world full of drugs, lust, sex, and defiance, we see a young woman once pure and innocent descend into an abyss, betraying her true self just so she can attain stardom. Aronofsky reveals in both Nina and Lily their predacious instincts, making their external beauty a veneer concealing their innate madness and cruelty.
More so with any film this year we are immersed and made part of this world Aronofsky creates. With his docu-style filmmaking we are lured into the mostly sterile and gray palette world, urged to become well acquainted with the existence of every character so we can endure every pain and experience they endure. But this is more slighted towards the character of Nina. We are meant to partake in her psychological unraveling. And the most appropriate way this is done is by allowing Clint Mansell’s original score (an alteration of the music found in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake) to linger throughout nearly every scene. This is done to emphasize that the same music relentlessly afflicting Nina is pervading our existence. Us hearing the music brings us closer to our main character, binding viewer and character; something a movie must do but rarely does.
Rating: ***** out of *****