Black Swan (2010) is a work of chilling beauty. Its excellent cinematography, dance, and music all accompanied by the performance of an exciting cast makes it a delicacy for the eyes and ears but much like any other Darren Aronofsky film, it requires some unravelling and consideration.
Black Swan has a narrative that works on a number of levels: firstly it is about Nina (Natalie Portman), an aspiring young ballet dancer and the desire that she has to perform the role of the ‘Swan Queen’ in the Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake, but as she fights for the part the narrative becomes more intricate. Her innocent and sweet demeanour give her the qualities required to perform the ‘White Swan’ aspect of the character but to perform the role of the ‘Black Swan’ to full affect she must embrace a much darker side of her personality.
Embracing such inner darkness unearths a new layer of the narrative for us as Nina begins to face a similar pain and heartache to that of the ‘Swan Queen’ in the story itself. As the role consumes our protagonist we become embroiled in a unique psychological thriller that manages to reinvent any preconceived ideas about the gentility and refinement of Ballet by providing us with an unimaginable take on Swan Lake.
Interestingly, Aronofsky explores bodily turmoil and dedication in Black Swan, themes recognisable from his previous film The Wrestler (2009). In the press conference that followed the festival screening of the film he said that “both wrestling and ballet are about performance and that in both, performers put their bodies before their health”. Aronofsky clearly feels that the exploration of the human body and its durability is a concept that is integral to the portrayal of both stories. This use of physicality and bodily transformation and/or turmoil is reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s work in films like Crash (1996) and A History of Violence (2005), and upon viewing work by either director a shared interest in human strength and bodily endurance becomes apparent.
However, Aronofsky takes Black Swan to another level by delving further into the psychological effects of brutal endurance and turmoil, and the stresses they place upon the mind. By probing in this way he creates an intriguing duality for us: on the one hand we are reminded of how much punishment the body can withstand but on the other we are forced to remember that the mind can only sustain so much, making Black Swan so human.
In the majority of his films Aronofsky manages to draw a different style of acting from his cast compared to the roles we usually see them perform. For example, Ellen Burstyn (whose work is predominantly drama based) as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream (2000) or Mickey Rourke (known largely for his roles in action movies) as Randy in The Wrestler both play characters that struggle with depression and loneliness.
In Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s character Nina is a sweet girl controlled by a desire for perfection but in that quest she must let go of herself both physically and more importantly emotionally. Portman notes that “As Nina begins to rebel against all the structures around her it comes with all this paranoia that takes her to a dark place, where she isn’t sure what other people want from her and whether or not she’s losing her mind.” Her portrayal of such complexity is astounding and chillingly evocative as she conveys both the innocence of a hard working young girl whose desire is to achieve perfection, whilst also managing to display a wildness and edge that we rarely see her reveal. As a result the film is worth watching based on her performance alone.
The intense performances in Black Swan help make it both visceral and engaging from start to finish. Other characters are played by the likes of the brilliant Vincent Cassell (La Haine , Irreversible ) as Thomas Leroy, the up and coming talent of Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall , The Book of Eli ) as Lilly, and a small performance from Winona Ryder (Girl, Interrupted ) as Beth MacIntyre.
This film is rich in story, abundant in character depth and manages to unsettle whilst electrifying us with its powerful performances, absorbing handheld filming and intensely empathic music. Further, the whole film has a bleak eeriness that has been achieved by the use of grainy 16mm film giving it a quality akin to that of The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream, yet it still evokes the brilliant grandeur of a stage show ballet. In Black Swan Darren Aronofsky has created yet another film that will be adored by cult fans, appreciated by many and debated by critics and scholars for years to come.