Never in my right mind would I have thought to watch a film about ballet dancers. Admittedly, I’m not sophisticated enough to partake in any sort of classical theater (though I did listen to a bit of “The Nutcracker” once — my nose titled upward with class). But after seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, my world has obviously changed. So it is time for me to bring out my monocle, spot myself a glass of fine wine, and commence my review for the film that combines the mind-bending thrills of Requiem for a Dream and the tale of self-discovery that was present in Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler which confidentially serves an innocent side-dish to what is sure to become a worldwide phenomena — offering a glimpse into the director’s own dark fantasy.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an immensely dedicated (evident in her bulimia and bloody yet incredibly flexible feet which stem from hours upon hours of practice on a daily basis), albeit troubled ballet dancer. An incarnate of goodness, she is, however, in order to land the central spot in playboy director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) new season of Swan Lake (a show that promises to retell the classic through a modern lens, which is all in attempt to win back audiences who yearn for something fresh). But although Nina has been repressed to the point of retaining a childlike innocence and naiveté — namely by her psychotic mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), an ex-dancer who lives her life through her daughter — her much wanted role as the Swan Queen creates animosity amongst her fellow dancers. One such rivalry chronicled throughout most of Black Swan, involves Lily (Mila Kunis), a fresh face, whose cunning and seductive mannerisms make her a formidable counterpart to Nina.
Of course, Lily is symbolic of the Black Swan — a concept that is foreign to Nina, who is, in fact, a child stuck in an adult’s body. This is made evident through one pivotal scene, in which Nina, who has become increasingly indulgent in her “dark-side,” throws away all of the stuffed animals that would formerly decorate her small room (which doesn’t even have a lock). Lily uses her arsenal of sex, drugs, and manipulation to reign supreme in Nina’s work and personal life — even going as far as to making advances towards Leroy, who admittedly, is scum, but who Nina adores for his own batch of sexuality.
But in this Freudian nightmare, color is almost as important as the characters that inhabit this world. There is a sharp contrast between black and white in Aronofsky’s latest. The most explicit example is in the costume design: Nina wears white/light colors, whereas Lily adorns darker tones. Although one small scene, that a majority of audience members have missed, has Winona Ryder’s character, Beth Macintyre, the former Swan Queen (a.k.a. “The Dying Queen”), hospitalized following a near-fatal incident. In this key, yet seemingly unimportant scene, the lighting (usually a forgotten albeit extremely important part of filmmaking) has been deliberately set so that only half of her face is covered in shadow. The imagery, creating the image of a two-sided Queen, channels both the White and the Black Swan which has led to her destruction, foreshadows Nina’s destiny. Mixed in with equally suitable (and terrific) set design and this centralized color scheme becomes Black Swan‘s key atmospheric element.
I believe, however, that it is mandatory to specify that leading actress, Natalie Portman, has reportedly trained for up to a year prior to shooting Black Swan. This shows an immense (and commendable) respect for her craft, which is further reinforced in her brilliant performance. She transforms herself for the role, being nearly unrecognizable — the Portman that most casual movie-goers don’t know. That being said, her dancing is electrifying — channeling the very spirit of ballet itself (perhaps even channeling her inner Oscar-winner, which this performance has a fairly good chance of bringing).
However, that wasn’t meant to understate the brilliance of the performances by Kunis (who utterly surprised me), Hershey (who shocked me), and Cassel (who backed up my claim that he is one of the best names in modern-cinema). All three are perfect in their own right, exhibiting emotions left and right and remaining unmistakably believable (though I admit to having a bit of bias here, as I’m still mesmerized by Cassel’s work in Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1). To see him in an American film was simply mind-blowing — but I don’t expect the same reaction from other people, but hey, I’m a die-hard fan.
Now as much as I enjoyed Black Swan, nothing is perfect; Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin’s script does have beautiful and organic (and almost poetic) dialogue, but the film does have its moments where it feels oversaturated and some superfluous plot devices could have been scrapped. In addition, some minor side characters were a bit underdeveloped.
Regardless of its flaws, none of which are necessarily damning, Black Swan marks an important chapter in director Darren Aronofsky’s career. His direction (which reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s trademark technique — a compliment no doubt), alongside a beautiful score which consists of some of Swan Lake’s most famous tunes, tie the film up very nicely, making it a true herculean masterpiece.