Black Swan ***1/2
2010, R, 108 minutes
Starring Natalie Portman (Nina), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas), Barbara Hershey (Erica), Winona Ryder (Beth). Produced by Scott Franklin, Ari Handel, and Jennifer Roth. Music by Clint Mansell. Cinematography by Matthew Libatique. Editing by Kristina Boden and Andrew Weisblum. Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin. Based on a story by Andres Heinz. Directed by Darren Aronosfky.
Darren Aronosfky’s films have always been about obsession. If you look at his filmography, each and every film looks at a certain individual and their obsession, their compulsion, their dedication, to achieve something or to obtain something, whether that be tangible or elusive. Let’s take a look at his debut feature, entitled Pi, which chronicled a man’s obsession over mathematical equations, and in essence, explored the detrimental consequences of his mental obsession. His next film, perhaps the one he is most known for, entitled Requiem for a Dream, is about individuals and their addiction to drugs, but not just the object, but the addiction for acceptance. The Fountain explores the concepts of immortality and grief, and about one man’s obsession to save the woman that he loves and being unwilling or unable to accept the mortality that lies before him. The Wrestler shows an aging man and his dedication to his craft, living a life only he knows, and how his profession dominates and influences even the most mundane aspects of his life.
With Black Swan, Aronosfky’s latest foray into self-obsession and arguably his greatest film since Requiem for a Dream, he once more explores the topic of being obsessed and dedicated to one’s craft. It’s an interesting and simultaneously reoccurring theme for Aronosfky, who gives his films such frenetic energy and pacing that you can tell based on his filmography that perhaps Aronosfky, like all great storytellers and geniuses, is a little obsessed himself. You could even call this a companion piece to The Wrestler – Aronosfky certainly does- and you can see why. Both films deal with individuals who strive for perfection and lead their lives with the sole goal of achieving something that literally consumes them and dominates their lives. Out of all Aronosfky’s films, Black Swan is the most horrifying and yet the most beautiful. Really, when you boil the film down to its bare essence, despite the packaging and what you might believe given the subject matter, Black Swan is unequivocally a horror film.
Black Swan follows the story of ballerina Nina Sayers, played majestically and flawlessly by Natalie Portman, who is a dedicated and driven performer. When she discovers that company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel, who despite being a bit of a scumbag, is also consequently slightly brilliant based on his methods) decides to re-envision Swan Lake, he decides to “let go” of star Beth (Winona Ryder, in a brief but pivotal role) and searches for a new lead. His search settles on young Nina, who is chosen to replace Beth, and in her journey to inhabit both the controlled and disciplined White Swan, she must also inhabit the darker and more uncontrolled Black Swan. This is where Nina is tested and tried. She is flawless when it comes to honing the qualities of the White Swan, but Thomas and her mother (Barbara Hershey, in a multi-faceted performance that exceeds cliches) Erica pushes her to become more uninhibited and embrace her inner Black Swan. That is literally and metaphorically what Nina does in the film, and in this process and gradual evolution of self-discovery and self-exploration she comes across another ballerina named Lily (Mila Kunis, in a one-dimensional but effective role) who helps her come out of her shell.
The film is like a ticking time bomb, and the more the film pushes forward, the more we unravel the hidden entity that lies within the soft shell that is Nina. She begins the film as this timid and shy creature, but as the pressure of the production weighs on her, with expectations rising, and a fiercely aggressive director forcing her to slowly come out of that shell, tensions begin to gradually rise. Natalie Portman is a revelation in this film, and she literally must perform a metamorphosis similar to the one the White Swan must endure in the production Swan Lake. It’s a tough act to preform and pull off, while still maintaining a sense of believability and emotional truism, but Portman sells you on a character that at the beginning of the film is this shy and fragile character, but toward the end changes so completely and utterly that it is actually quite shocking. You never hesitate for a moment to reconsider the type of dedication and utter commitment that Portman’s character must endure, and what she must sacrifice – and that sheer willingness to sacrifice- but if anything, you feel empathetic toward her plight. What her character achieves at the end of the story is what any performer or artist wishes to achieve- to literally end your career on the highest note possible.
In this sense, Black Swan is very much a mirror to the production Swan Lake, so if you are familiar with the play, then you will be familiar with the structure of the film. That might give away some things when you’re watching, including most prominently the ending, but it’s not necessarily the ending or the trivial details that make this movie so engrossing, but the journey that gets you there. As I mentioned before, Black Swan calls back to Aronosfky’s most popular film Requiem for a Dream in the way it moves and ebbs along pacing-wise. The film is only 108 minutes long, but it feels much shorter, and that’s a testament to good filmmaking when you are watching something unfold and you are so wrapped up in the proceedings that it just whips on by. That’s how tight and concise the narrative of the story remains, and Aronosfky here has stripped all the unessential elements and instead has focused on an incredibly tight story structure that flows and ebbs so effortlessly that almost every moment is too terrifying to watch. It’s literally one of those films where the one word where I can best describe the entirety is “intense”, and that’s not a cheat or a mis-approximation, that is literally the best word to describe the film. There were moments when I just cringed, and not in the bad way, but in the good way that just made you feel uncomfortable.
Aronosfky focuses on some of the more minute details of the most simplistic things, but they never feel inconsequential, but as a matter of fact quite the opposite. There’s a lot of shots of Nina preparing and you see the inner workings of what this dedication and commitment has done to her both psychologically and physically. We get close-up shots of bruised feet and scratches. Never once in my life did I feel the need to squint when observing a chiropractor adjusting someone as frail and fragile as Natalie Portman, but because Aronosfky focuses on those seemingly unimportant details, it gradually builds and builds and you begin to understand why he focuses on the things he does. He’s building up a character, and he’s building this story, and it’s that obsessive attention to detail that makes Aronosfky so compelling as a storyteller and why he makes so compelling films. Only an obsessive man can get you into the finer workings of someone who feels so obsessed and commitment to their profession, and I believe Aronosfky knows more than he’s letting on, but his films are his greatest journals and they say more than he ever could.
The rest of the cast is splendid. Mila Kunis, who stars as the potential rival ballerina who threatens to take everything away from Nina, plays the conventional stereotype that is expected in this type of story, except at the end of the film you’re not really quite sure what role she did play, or if she was as a matter of fact just the female version of Tyler Durden. Vincent Cassel could have played the role of Thomas in a hammy and superficial way, but instead he imbues the character with some ambiguity and complexity that make you ultimately question his ulterior motives (there’s one scene where Cassel’s Thomas brings Nina back to his apartment that completely took me by surprise at how it unfolded). Even more impressive is Barbara Hershey as Erica, Nina’s typical strong-willed mother. Even this character has more shades of gray than you might expect, and you end up really believing, despite Erica’s vicarious relationship with Nina, that she really does care for her.
Black Swan is probably one of the most intense yet simultaneously engrossing films I’ve seen in 2010, and in that case probably one of the most memorable. It’s a deeply affecting psychological thriller and even more so a greatly involving character study. It’s also a deeply disturbing horror film, but similar toThe Silence of the Lambs, has more sophistication and art than you might expect from a film of this ilk. It’s also a really interesting and compelling drama, with fleshed out and multi-faceted characters and strong performances, and you mix all of these incredibly exciting, unpredictable ingredients and you achieve something truly spectacular. That end result is Black Swan, a film that is at once disturbing, beautiful, pulsating, and engrossing all at once. It’s one hell of a film.