Title: Black Swan
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied
As is said in the film, ballet isn’t for everyone and neither is Black Swan, which really should be considered an honor more than anything. The film is overwhelming in every sense of the word and could just be too much for some to handle. But, if you have what it takes to absorb this wild mixture of personalities, visuals and nightmares, the result is profound. This is easily one of the most emotionally impactful films of the year and is something that will certainly haunt you long after the credits roll in the best possible way.
Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, a professional ballet dancer desperate to be in the spotlight. When the lead dancer in her company, Beth (Winona Ryder), is forced to retire, Nina finally gets the opportunity to audition for the lead role in their production of Swan Lake in which the White and Black Swans are played by the same performer. When the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), tells Nina she’s a natural for the role of the elegant and pristine White Swan, but lacks the natural sensuality required to play the Black Swan, Nina’s only chance to get the part is to give into Thomas’ sexual advances.
Once Nina is named the Swan Queen, the pressure to perform consumes her. Not only is her ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) keeping an incessantly watchful eye on her, but Nina herself must keep an eye on her competition, specifically the new free-spirited performer Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily embodies everything Thomas imagines the Black Swan to be, something Nina cannot achieve no matter how much she rehearses. As opening night draws near, Nina’s obsession with perfection becomes increasingly suffocating, disturbing and dangerous.
Black Swan is a character piece and Nina Sayers is an endlessly fascinating person. Within minutes, the audience knows Nina inside and out creating a terrifyingly foreboding expectation for the events to come. She may seem like an innocent young dancer just trying to make her dream come true, but as the pressure builds, cracks in her composure reveal something horrifyingly volatile and almost otherworldly. It’s this dichotomy that’s responsible for just about all of the tension in this film.
As well written as this character is, Nina wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it weren’t for a chilling performance by Portman. As evident as Aronofsky’s touch is, this is her movie and she deserves recognition for her work. Whether it be earning the audience’s sympathy when she’s terrified she may not get the part or making the viewers cringe at her deplorable behavior, Portman doesn’t just get the job done on screen, she drives that point home so much so you swear you can feel Nina’s emotion yourself. Towards the end of the film, the weight of the situation bears down on Nina so much, she has a hard time breathing. Be sure to take one big breath as you go into that third act because your airways will undoubtedly be restricted, too.
As for Portman’s supporting cast, it’s simple; everyone is fantastic. Well, maybe not everyone, but it’s more of a character development issue rather than a performance fault. Ryder’s character is just one big cliché the film could have done without. On the other hand, Cassel, Kunis and especially Hershey make for fantastic supporting characters, all helping to unravel our main character. Thomas is the most curious of the bunch. While he clearly oversteps his boundaries in the sexual department one too many times, there’s something about his actions that seem totally warranted. It’s mentioned that Thomas has “a reputation,” but at the same time, Cassel portrays him as a brilliant teacher that not only knows what he’s doing, but is genuinely concerned for Nina’s well being, too.
Lily has a similar effect. The threat she poses to Nina is always present, but, like Thomas, she truly cares about Nina. It may not seem like she has Nina’s best interest in mind when she slips something into her drink, but there is a more noble side to her actions, making you desperate for Nina to just open up to Lily and accept her help. Similarly, Erica, Nina’s mother, offers warmth and poses a threat all at the same time. It’s obvious she’s taking her motherly duties a bit too far, tucking her 20-something daughter into bed and bossing her around as though she’s a child, but it’s also hard to deny that these actions are just a mother’s love. When Nina begins to unravel, it’s hard to decide whether you want her to break free of her mother’s clutches or just have a good cry in her arms.
Someone else who’s present throughout Black Swan without ever being on screen is Aronofsky and that’s the film’s one major fault. His preference for handheld close-ups comes in handy towards the end of the film when it comes to making the audience literally feel the intensity of the situation, but the technique’s use at the beginning is just distracting. For a good portion of the film, particularly the parts delivering more exposition, it’s hard not to wish he’d just tell cinematographer Matthew Libatique to put the damn thing down and let us see what’s happening for ourselves rather than being forced to look at such a small portion of the action. On the other hand, the choice of going with a super 16mm camera is absolutely genius. Just like The Wrestler, Black Swan has a beautifully natural look that really complements the material and the effect Aronofsky is aiming to achieve with the camerawork – but not enough to justify so many handheld close-ups.
Black Swan gets its power from the ambiguity. Almost all of the characters evoke a wide variety of responses and the inconsistency is jarring. On top of that, there’s something not quite right in Nina’s head. She often suffers from frightening visions, some of which aren’t actually visions at all. It’s this constant feeling of never being quite sure what’s happening, what’s real and what’s imagined and then the sheer terror of some of the visuals that make Black Swan an overwhelmingly emotional piece. While you may leave the theater partly shocked by the material, you’ll also be utterly fascinated and combined, the two reactions oddly create a need to return for a second viewing.
By Perri Nemiroff