Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan takes an unusually dark and terrifying approach to the world of ballet. Eschewing the clichéd conventions of pink tutus and curly twelve-year-old girls, Aronofsky plunges deep into the twisted darkness of the obsessive mind of an artist. The mind in question belongs to sensitive dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), called on to perform the iconic double lead role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most well-known ballet ever written. Near perfect in her technique and precision, Nina is undaunted by the opportunity of dancing the lyrical White Swan. Unfortunately for her, she must also embody the White Swan’s nemesis and devious doppelganger – the Black Swan. Spurred on by her overbearing mother and terrified of losing her chance, Nina struggles to find within herself the darkness and sensuality demanded by the role as she spirals into paranoia and ultimately madness.
The film is undoubtedly very visually edgy and the art direction and camera work are stylized and tense. Aronofsky constantly shifts between reality and illusion, pulling the viewer into Nina’s increasingly disturbed viewpoint, and it is frequently hard to discern the line between reality and hallucination. Some of the visual effects are genuinely stunning and cleverly employed, aided greatly by atmospheric, expressionistic lighting effects and dynamic editing.
Motifs of blood and sexual tension are unfortunately somewhat overused. Aranofsky displays enough creative flair in the film to have no excuse for repetitive imagery. Nina’s emotional turmoil is about more than lesbian urges and minor self-destructive tendencies, and Black Swan’s imagery is much more compelling and intriguing when Aranofsky remembers that.
Mila Kunis, as Nina’s confident, sexually threatening understudy is suitably fetching, but does little other than contribute her well-made features to mind-boggling special effects shots. Natalie Portman tries valiantly to conjure Nina’s growing fear and confusion, but much like Nina herself, she is more convincing when portraying fragility and weakness than aggressive paranoia and frustrated sexuality. As her mental and physical transfiguration progresses, she relies more and more on extreme makeup and CG effects to develop the character for her. It is worth noting that some of those CG effects do a marvelous job of picking up the slack. Without giving anything away, a certain scene that involves the dramatic unfurling of monumental black wings, the feathers silhouetted against the glaring footlights of the stage, is a gorgeously composed and memorable image.
Black Swan is a frightening vision not because of its violence, hardly graphic by this year’s standards, but because of its immersive quality. The rapid, rhythmic editing, claustrophobic camera angles, and misleading, hallucinatory imagery all combine to create a gripping, unrelenting anxiety. It ventures boldly into the dark side of inspiration, the entrapment of a fragile mind in the all-consuming power of a vision that is not its own, with only one way out – to transform while self-destructing in the process.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan
Language: English, French