There’s something a little bittersweet about watching Black Swan, one of the highlights of the London Film Festival’s programme and, importantly, the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky. It now seems set in stone that he will finally graduate from his stellar line of small budget, against-the-grain outsider works, leaping into the comic book adaptation big league, reportedly taking the helm of the new Wolverine movie (although, while at the festival, the director himself seemed unwilling to confirm this development).
This news is particularly saddening, since Black Swan is one of his best works to date, the product of a confident, skilled artist who is in total control of his talents.
You probably already know the setup. This is a film about ballet, specifically, a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which is shot through with the emotional intensity of psychological horror. Like Aronofsky’s previous film, the gritty character piece The Wrestler, Black Swan looks at the demanding behind-the-scenes aspects, physically and mentally, of its chosen artform.
Here, young dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), is cast in the production’s lead role, and is tasked with performing as both the virginal White Swan, and the antagonistic, seductive Black Swan. Although, while she is perfectly capable of executing the poise and grace of the former character, she is lacking a certain something when it comes to the darker side of the performance, something beyond technique, which director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) pushes her to attain.
On its most simple narrative level, Black Swan covers the strain of performance and the myriad issues that come from a yearning for the spotlight. However, whereas Randy ‘The Ram’ was a seasoned pro desiring one last fling, Nina is a newcomer, and her problems are all related to the anxiety of making a lasting first impression. To that end, paranoia reigns, with threats coming from her predecessor, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), and her major rival, the free-spirited Californian, Lily (Mila Kunis). They both hold something Nina lacks, one, experience, the other, a sense of unbridled sexuality, and it is this latter quality that Thomas, through candid manipulation, hopes to see on stage.
It is quite a stunning representation of the world of performing arts, and a surprisingly cutting criticism of bullying directors, and the Method school of making personal emotions the raw content of the actor’s work.
And this is to say nothing of its daring genre flourishes. To relate in detail would be to spoil its power, especially as we’re months away from Black Swan‘s UK theatrical release, but Aronofsky’s pursuit of a Polanski-ish blend of realism and expressionistic flair places the film on a whole other level.
Safe to say, the pursuit of perfection gets the better of Nina, who is of a temperament unsuited to weathering the stress of such a role. That seems to suggest an eventual breaking point, but Black Swan does not rely on a grand reveal, or a cheap twist. Instead, Aronofsky peppers the film with unnerving, creepy, ambiguous moments, keeping the audience on edge as the tension mounts.
This could take the form of a quick cut, close-up montage (recalling the medication/drug sequences of Pi and Requiem For A Dream) of cracking toe joints and bright red blisters, or, fittingly for a film about doubles, reflections and echoes, glimpses of horror in mirrors, or half-obscured faces. Such psychological red herrings keep surprising, and enthralling the viewer right through to the end, building to a final performance which both works as a fitting character arc crescendo, and a dazzling affirmation of the art of ballet, packing emotional and tonal complexity into its collision of music and dance.
These sequences are shot with a compelling, hyper-real immediacy, with Matthew Libatique’s cinematography unafraid to follow the film’s more theatrical moments of expressionism, yet still maintaining a real-world foundation.
Portman’s performance is also key, not only as she is providing the majority of the dancing herself, but because she so closely mirrors her character’s duality, looking gaunt and under-nourished, ribs showing, body broken by the ordeal of ballet, yet transforming before our eyes into the twisted titular persona.
Both Kunis and Cassel function perfectly as dramatic foils, but are also delightful as they dissipate the atmosphere, bringing with them a welcome amount of humour in response to Nina’s sociopathic behaviour.
Throughout, we can spot thematic threads from Aronofsky’s body of emotionally raw, character-based studies of obsession and tragedy. Indeed, at times Black Swan feels like a culmination of his last 12 years of distinctive, astounding filmmaking.
Between now and its release in February, we should find out for certain what lies for him next. And even if the next chapter of his career is in a more franchise-shaped context, let’s hope that he is allowed to continue this streak.