Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“I just want to be perfect.”
The darkest recesses of the human mind and soul are not unfamiliar territory to director Darren Aronofsky. Films like Requiem for a Dream and Pi revealed just how depressing and despairing such corners can be, while The Fountain revealed the heartbreaking consequences of obsession and guilt. His most accomplished work to date, The Wrestler, revealed a tragic figure burdened by the weight of faded glory and broken dreams. With Black Swan, Aronofsky aims to show just how horrifying the human mind can be when it becomes consumed by the impossible pursuit of perfection.
New York ballet director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) is opening his new season with a performance of Swan Lake; after casting off his old muse and star performer (Winona Ryder), he holds auditions to find a replacement. One of his standout students, Nina, is a compulsive perfectionist, driven by her overbearing mother. She manages to catch Thomas’s eye and contends for the role of the swan queen. However, she is rivaled by newcomer Lily, and she begins to descend upon a path of self-destruction, fueled by paranoia and her tenuous grip on reality.
As its title suggests, Black Swan is a mass of contradictions; its subject matter is seedy, disturbing, and, quite frankly, ugly. It deals in self-mutilation, sexual frustration, jealously, revenge, and emotional and psychological abuse, yet it captures all of this with an elegance and grace that’s alarmingly contrasting. From the opening frame, the film is visually arresting, and the narrative is instantly alluring due to Aronofsky’s refined direction. It’s interesting that he uses a faux-documentary style at times here that’s reminiscent of The Wrestler; whereas that film used the effect for a heightened sense of reality and authenticity, Black Swan’s unsteady and lingering gaze makes one leery and distrustful of the events unfolding. A Polanski-esque sense of suffocating claustrophobia pervades almost every frame, as we close in on Nina’s crumbling world and her deteriorating mind.
This struggle is brought to life by a brave, powerhouse performance from Natalie Portman, who brings a fragile and innocent grace to Nina. From her opening appearance, she appears on the verge of an enormous breakdown, as she not only carries the burden of her own ambition, but also her mother’s (Hershey). The rivalry between Portman and Kunis is the billed main event, but the true conflict emerges from this disturbing mother-daughter relationship that gives rise to a sense of teenage rebellion on the part of Nina, who insists she isn’t twelve years old anymore. Indeed, she’s well into her twenties, having been sheltered and emotionally abused by her mother up until this tipping point in her life. Like Randy “The Ram” Robinson, her counterpart in The Wrestler, Nina has been forced to kayfabe her way through life itself, always putting on a show, striving to please others. Even her director, an unseemly sexual predator, demands a seemingly impossible performance, one that will capture both perfect grace and uninhibited seductiveness.
Such dichotomies run throughout Black Swan, most evidently in that rivalry between Nina and Lily. The latter is the complete opposite of the former--what she lacks in refined elegance, she makes up for with passion and a lack of inhibitions. A pill-popping, sort of neo-noir femme fatale, Lily is the seductress who represents the “black swan” that’s been repressed deep inside of Nina for her entire life. Much will be made of the sultry and sexual path their relationship takes, and it’s a very primal, psycho-sexual take on what an ailing, gaping soul needs to be set free. It’s rather graphic and unflinching, but, true to the film’s form, the unrestrained rawness is more accurate than the beautiful lies being paraded about by Nina. It’s almost as if this character has never lived a true moment in her life until Lily allows her to do, and this truth is an overwhelming catalyst to psychosis.
From a horror standpoint, Black Swan is full of cinematic echoes that swirl about as Nina finally does break down. The ballet subject matter will rightfully draw immediate comparisons to Argento’s Suspiria, but other visual nods towards the old Italian master abound--otherworldly red and green hues envelop Nina, while some outdoor shots resemble the famed piazzas that were once captured in his giallo films. The paranoia and tension hovering throughout the film is most reminiscent of early Polanski (and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the most claustrophobic place here is an apartment), while the erotic thriller elements channel De Palma. Perhaps most affecting and memorable is a bizarre sense of body horror that mirror the work of Cronenberg, as Nina’s mind isn’t the only thing that suffers trauma. The routine physical horrors of ballet itself are revealed in the form of deformed toes and disjointed limbs, while more extreme mutilations unfold as Nina falls further away from reality.
Unlike Suspiria, however, Black Swan is about demons that bewitch the mind. A sort of bizarre companion piece to The Wrestler by way of Mulholland Drive, the film is a meditative exploration of darkness and obsession that is also oddly resonant in its treatment of self-affirmation. Though it paints broad, extreme strokes, it also strikes the chord that reminds us that there’s something hidden deep down in every person that’s spent most of their life trying to please others. The most horrifying thing Black Swan has to say is just what happens when this darkness is embraced, and what it really costs to be true to yourself. It sounds trite and cliché, but this is anything but that; instead, it’s a mesmerizing and spell-binding journey into madness, an auditory (Clint Mansell’s score is haunting and manic) and visual tour-de-force that further solidifies Aronofsky’s place among the elite of his generation. Buy it!
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