It takes guts to make a movie like Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky’s newest film is a twisting, hellish descent into the repressed and splintering mind of young ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a bold attempt to make art out of horror while making horror out of art. It is the kind of thriller that we don’t see often enough these days, a delightfully insane examination of a troubled mind that walks a fine line between genuine brilliance and sheer ridiculousness. And yet, somehow it holds together, becoming one of the most interesting films of the year.
The film follows Nina as she trains for what should be a star making role: a dual performance as both the White Swan and Black Swan in her company’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina is a perfect embodiment of the virtue and purity of the White Swan, but she is unable to capture the sexuality and venom of the Black Swan. This isn’t a problem with her dance technique; it is a problem with her life experiences and personality. Nina is still a child, right down to the mountain of stuffed animals in her room. She lacks the edge to command the darker areas of the performance.
And so, as opening night nears and pressure mounts, Nina delves into her darker side in an attempt to perfect her performance. The more she gets in touch with her primal nature, the stranger the world around her becomes. She wonders if other dancers are plotting against her. She notices small, uncanny changes in her surroundings; things that were once familiar now become menacing. Nina is stuck with the problem of discovering if this paranoia is real or merely the pressure of the role getting to her.
Complicating things further are the relationships Nina has with those closest to her. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a human vice grip, a former dancer that still helps Nina dress for bed and clips her nails. She’s a step down from the menacing matriarchs of Carrie and The Piano Teacher, but still a force nonetheless. We suspect that the only thing that frightens her more than her daughter losing her virtue would be her daughter losing the role.
At Nina’s ballet studio, two very different relationships help shape her trip to the dark side. The first is with her instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Thomas is, for what we know, brilliant, but he is also unapologetically sexual (because what movie Frenchman isn’t?), especially when dealing with her. He urges Nina to lose herself in the role of the Black Swan to truly capture it.
The more interesting relationship though, comes with the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a rival dancer who poses an immediate threat to Nina. Lily works as something of a doppelgänger for her, a double with completely opposite traits. Lily wavers in her technique as a dancer, but possesses the passion and electricity to make up for it, something Nina could never do. Her sexuality is visceral; it’s real. As Thomas says, “she isn’t faking it.” Nina is both afraid of Lily and attracted to her; Lily has the power to replace her, but she is also an embodiment of the qualities she needs to discover within herself. Nina is enticed by her because she is enticed by what she could become if she let herself go.
How Aronofsky handles all of this is key, because in the hands of a lesser director, this could’ve easily become an erotic sort of trashy horror film. And to be honest, at times parts of it are trashy, or pulpy, or completely melodramatic. But this doesn’t make it any less engrossing because we can tell that the performers and director all believe in what they’re doing. That is not to say it isn’t still playful or deliberately shocking at times (it is a horror movie, after all), but it is also aware of its higher merits, and is able to balance somewhere between genre film and art picture. It recalls echoes of Polanski’s Repulsion, but is more overt in its madness. Whether that is a good or bad thing is entirely up to you.
It also seems to allow Aronofsky to achieve the greatest synthesis of all the tools he wields as a director without it feeling forced. He is stylish where he needs to be (an ecstasy induced rave being one of the best scenes), but is also content to work out of a grounded, handheld style that gives it the intimacy and grit of The Wrestler. I’ve always thought of Aronofsky as something of an over-reacher, but here he has finally found a perfect balance between his technical and stylistic prowess and more subtle direction to leave the narrative at the foreground.
The way he chooses to shoot the dance sequences must also be noted. Opting to stay handheld here instead of using sweeping, organized camera movement creates a vision of ballet that few of us have seen before. From the audience, a ballet is all about tightly controlled grace, flowing movements and gentle beauty. In Black Swan, the camera spins and whirls wildly through the dancers on stage, revealing a level of barely controlled chaos that few of us could imagine. It is dazzling to look at, but also keeps with the film’s theme of chaos lurking below a surface of beauty.
All of this would be for naught, however, if Portman’s performance fell anywhere short of brilliant. Going into the film, we expect that Portman herself will have to mirror her character’s transition from light to dark, but the ferocity with which she commands the dark side of her character is astonishing. She performs with unwavering bravery in the face of some of the most rampant scenes of female sexuality in a recent mainstream film, and is able to thrust herself into them in a way that saves them from being mere shock footage or pornography. She is a fully formed character, and when she finally does take the stage as the Black Swan, the look in her eyes is both devastating and carnivorous. As an actress, the transformation she depicts is complete.
I cannot predict how you walk away from Black Swan. Those hoping for Aronofsky to deliver an art house masterpiece will be disappointed by its horror; those expecting a horror film may be surprised by its art. It is a perfect example of a love it or hate it movie, something you will either buy into or reject completely. I suppose either reaction is correct. But I will freely admit that it was able to capture me and suck me in. I cannot deny it. It has a hold on me.
Black Swan is certainly destined to be polarizing, but those who buy into it will find a dark, thoughtful, thrilling experience grounded by Portman’s complete performance and some of Aronofsky’s finest direction: A