I’ll come right out and say it, Black Swan is a masterpiece. It’s a masterpiece of obsession and what that obsession ultimately does to a person. It’s also a perfect summation of Darren Aronofsky’s career to date, a cap on his independent work, and one which, if he does, indeed, depart to the land of Hollywood blockbusters for good, will serve as a dazzling tribute to his early craft.
I imagine most people are aware of the premise behind Black Swan. Natalie Portman is Nina, a talented but reserved ballerina, who is chosen as the lead in a new production of Swan Lake.
Although she is a perfect White Swan, she is also required to play the twin Black Swan, and to do so, must unlock a more seductive and unrestrained part of her nature. Added to this is the pressure from her mother, a failed ballerina, and the threat from Mila Kunis’ Lily, a new dancer who appears to have everything Nina lacks for the role.
Black Swan is an intense experience, and one which stays with you long afterwards. From the relatively simple setup explained above, it explores complex territory of obsession, psychosis, replacement anxiety and unchecked ambition, all filtered through a combination of what seems, at first, to be a ballet movie, but ultimately reveals itself to be a horror film.
Obsession is an overriding thematic concern of Aronofsky. Pi deals with a brilliant young mathematician, who becomes unhinged after discovering and then losing a 216 digit number which unlocks the stock market. Requiem For A Dream is about addiction, whether to drugs or TV, or to each other.
The Fountain, which I believe is his most personal work so far, is about how one man’s love for his wife leads to an obsession with cheating death, which spans centuries and ultimately leads him to lose sight of his love. The Wrestler follows an ageing pro’s attempts to keep his career alive and his eventual breaking of ties to anyone who can offer him redemption in order to pursue his obsession to its bitter end.
Quite clearly, Aronofsky is a director with a need to explore this theme, and always show the brutal and often lonely consequences of addiction and singular purpose. Here he showcases this again, but with paradoxically subtler and broader brushstrokes.
How far will someone go to achieve their ambitions? How can you create a new star? These are the questions that Black Swan poses, and Nina is at the centre of this, and is the fulcrum of every conscious and unconscious desire expressed throughout the film.
Black Swan‘s ‘reality’ responds to her state of mind. The viewer is forced to experience what is real for her, as if it were real for us. It is this which leads to the intensity of the movie, and creates for us a measure of sympathy and empathy for Nina, which resides, even as we see her literally become the ‘monstrous feminine’.
Portman is the key to this believable transformation, and is worth every single line of praise written about her. She is incredible in the role and inhabits Nina in a way that I have rarely seen from a well-known actor or actress in a long time.
At no time did I think I was watching Portman ‘act’ her way through a scene. She instead breathes Nina with every fibre of her being. The physical pain she puts herself through in pursuit of perfection is incredibly viscera. Every cracked joint and stretched sinew is testament to the preparation she reportedly put herself through, yet is nothing compared to the depths of psychological pain she begins to experience. And no matter how accomplished you are physically are as an actor, it takes something very special to create a breakdown that real.
However, every character is after their personal grail, not just Nina. While hers is the story we follow, and whose immersion into the psyche of the Black Swan character becomes all consuming, time is set aside to delve into the inner workings of her mother, Erica, played by the excellent Barbara Hershey, ex-prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), and ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel).
Lily, too, has her own ambitions, but they are tied in closely to those of Nina, as the lines between the two characters become intentionally blurred.
Erica and Beth have a similar role and similar obsessions, like much of this film. They can be seen to represent two sides of the same coin. They are the voice of supposed experience, and show a corrupted maternal nature. Erica wants what she views as best for her daughter, Nina, and hopes she can achieve the success that eluded her, and which she partly blames her daughter for. However, her love for her has turned into a need for control over every aspect of Nina, and a desire to own her which is absolute.
Beth, on the other hand, represents the fear of replacement by her ‘daughter’, a younger and more alluring competitor, who has now taken her place by the ‘father’s side, in this case, Thomas. Her increasingly unhinged behaviour disturbs Nina, but only points the way she will go, as shown by Nina’s desire to become Beth, whether through taking her position as lead dancer, or through wearing her cosmetics.
Both women display an effective madness inherent in their characters. Ryder is tasked with providing a far more theatrical nature to hers, while Hershey manages to combine a mother’s protective instinct, together with an unhealthy interest in her daughter which borders on the extreme.
Then there is Cassel. Almost floating above the fray, he is a simmering and powerful presence, and one which you may come away from the film believing is responsible for everything. He is the catalyst for unleashing Nina’s dark side, with a seemingly clichéd attempt to take advantage of her sexually, which ,upon further reflection, is all part of his ambition and obsession to create a production of Swan Lake which is genuinely new, passionate and compelling to the audience.
The applause is what he lives for, and it is clear in his discarding of Beth and his almost careless treatment of her (with regards to her mindset beyond the show). He can only accept those who conform to how he envisages a role, which is why the sensuality of Lily inherently appeals to him, and why he realises he can use that to push Nina into becoming the dancer he wants her to be.
The film craft exhibited by Aronofsky and his crew is also exquisite and integral to the action. The increasingly dreamlike and fragmentary aesthetic perfectly captures Nina’s descent and keeps the audience constantly guessing as to what is real and what is illusionary, often within the same frame.
The film retains the same loose one camera setup of The Wrestler, giving the action a naturalistic, semi-documentary feel at times. But, unlike his previous film, Aronofsky has welded this technique with occasional flashes of the hyper-reality evidenced in Requiem, but instead of the preparation of a heroin shot, it is instead the preparation of ballet shoes for practice.
To those familiar with Aronofsky’s previous work, the connection and meaning is clear, and once again ties back into his thematic concerns. However, the documentary feel of the piece slowly unravels until the incredible ending, where the threads running throughout the film are suddenly unleashed, in spectacular style.
For a director noted for powerful endings, this is possibly his best, combing both the power of Requiem and the cathartic release of The Fountain, as well elements of The Wrestler which are best left unsaid for fear of going too much into spoiler territory.
Suffice it to say, Black Swan will be a contender for film of the year, and is one of the finest I have seen in a long time. It is a concise, multi-faceted, and compelling insight into the breakdown of a woman striving to become the ultimate embodiment of her art, and serves equally well as a psychological study, a thriller, and a good old fashioned body horror.
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