Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Critically acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky is at it again. After a series of films about tortured souls in which the torture was often both self-inflicted and driven by forces outside of the protagonists’ control, he returns with a tale directly inspired by the classic ballet tale Swan Lake. I don’t know why Aronofsky is so keenly interested in stories about people who aren’t happy and on the rare occasions when happiness should lift them, they cannot grasp it. Nevertheless, he’s rather good at this sort of tale, so why not give it another go? Whereas his previous effort took viewers inside the wrestling ring, this time it’s behind the scenes of a ballet, the famous story of Swan Lake, prepared by director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who has awarded the lead role of the Swan Queen to Nina (Nathalie Portman), member of the group for some time already but who only now has earned a significant place in the spotlight. Thomas explains to his troop that this ballet has been practiced and performed aplenty but not like under his direction. For the supremely talented but highly introverted Nina, those words shall bear unforgettable meaning.For those fearing that familiarity with the classic story is a prerequisite, rest assured, there is a 2 or 3 minute scene featuring the girls and boys of the troop stretching their legs while the director reminds them with a general synopsis. Those reluctant to see a movie about ballet (as opposed to something clearly more awesome like American football, soccer or basketball), I can only try to reassure them by saying that Black Swan is an absolute delight. A few months before this film’s wider release, some of the early buzz spoke about how Black Swan, in a few ways, functioned as a companion to piece to Aronofsky’s previous movie, The Wrestler (reviewed here). Lonely protagonists who work in physically demanding fields, performers really, set on paths paved with hardship emanating both from their faults as people as well as life’s little curve balls. While The Wrestler’s aesthetic and plot was steeped in a realism from which plenty of emotion was extracted, Black Swan is very much the mirror opposite. There are countless of times when Nina, who is gifted with raw talent but cursed with a deep sense of paranoia and social skills, is plagued by eerie visions and sounds which may or may not be figments of her unstable imagination. Whatever existing truth found stems from the emotions pounding on Nina as the big premier night approaches. The rest is an audio and visual voyage in which almost anything is possible it seems, even metamorphosis if you’ve seen the movie’s much talked about trailer.
The pressures associated with playing the part of the Swan Queen alone are enough for a fragile girl like Nina to wrestle with, but the arrival of talented, seductive, care-free Lily (Mila Kunis) is another cause for concern. Her character makes but fleeting appearances during the story’s first third, coming across as friendly all while displaying a more ‘devil may care’ attitude than her counterparts, especially Nina. In the latter stages of the movie however, Nina’s growing concern about the upcoming performance, as well as her seeping paranoia, clouds her judgement of Lily, beginning to suspect her of wanting to steal the coveted role of Swan Queen. The friend becomes the rival, although whether any of Nina’s suspicions are founding or not is another matter altogether. As rehearsals for the production of White Swan progress, or regress in Nina’s case, the audience is lead to believe that the girl’s body and mind are literally experiencing the story of the ballet, but is she really? Therein lies part the fun to be had with Black Swan.
The film never really establishes if its story is set in a fantastical world or one based more on our own, a ‘realistic’ one so to speak. Unsurprisingly, the evolution of the plot, in many ways thematically and in some ways structurally, follows that of the actual ballet. As the performer called upon to interpret the Swan Queen, Nina must embrace the qualities of both the White and Black swans. The structure of White comes naturally, but the fluidity and seductiveness of the Black eludes her, qualities her new rival Lily embodies perfectly. The emergency Aronofsky uses to direct the second half of the film in portraying sweet Nina’s psychological and perhaps physical trek to embrace her darker side. The crescendos reach electrifying peaks, showing Nina at her most vulnerable but still determined. The swirling of the camera, the epic music (which is not original mostly, it’s Tchaikovsky, but nonetheless used effectively), the ever present danger to Nina’s physical, emotional and mental health, a beautiful cast, a plot whose stakes raise by the minute, these are the tools at the director’s disposal, tools from which Aronofsky squeezes all the satisfying melodrama he can from. Melodrama was also abundant in one of his earlier works Requiem for a Dream, but Black Swan is more assertive and energetic than the former. It relishes its melodrama and knows exactly what to do with it, what buttons to press, what levers to pull, giving us a product that really is rather sensational, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Visual flare and inherent drama aside, there is also the matter of a certain Nathalie Portman, star of the show. Here is an actress who has often been good, but never great I don’t think. There were no worries on my part upon learning that she had landed the role of the central character, I thought she could handle it all well enough. Turns out ‘well enough’ was a massive understatement. Portman gives the performance of her career. The juxtaposition of delicacy and strength required of her calls upon terrific acting. Nina’s strength emerges in full force as her fragility is being squashed, a transformation that Portman understands. She breaths the role, imbuing the picture with a rich core worthy of all the bells and whistles that surround it. There are a handful of fine performances to support her, such as Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother who gave up a career in ballet to have Nina and therefore feels quite protective of her (and who’s exceptional in the role), and finally Winona Ryder, playing the reluctant retiree whom Nina is replacing. Black Swan is obviously gifted with a marvellous and diverse line-up of actors and each one brings everything they have to the table.
Black Swan’s release comes during the yearly period when several Oscar hopeful motion pictures make their ways to the multiplexes. Unlike in years past, the current schedule does not appear to reserve many truly significant films. I’m not saying that the competition at the box office shan’t offer quality, only that this year the releases seem a bit more tame than usual. Enter Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s wake up call to those who like to claim Hollywood can only plays things safe. It certainly has the cast and a classical story for it to sneak into the ‘mainstream’ category, which I have no problem calling it, but it has some punches and tricks up its sleeve to catch many off guard, something this movie goer appreciated immensely. There are a couple more movies from the class of 2010 I need to discover before engaging in the critic and blogger ritual of compiling a ‘best of the year’ list, but Black Swan shall definitely be on it. It’s only a matter of ranking it now.