Darren Aronofsky has many distinctive traits as a filmmaker. His films almost always center on self-destructive personalities that are not only obsessive in their own right but are also compulsive for an audience to watch. Black Swan is no different and expertly displays Aronofsky’s style.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina that strives for perfection. She devotes every living second to her profession and anything she does is because of it or for it. Being part of the prestigious New York City ballet company might suggest Nina would be happy with what she has achieved by the age of twenty-eight, but artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has decided for the new season to cast aside prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) for a new Swan Queen in what he describes as a “visceral and real” production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina is the obvious choice for the white swan as she is meticulous in her movements as a dancer, but Thomas wants both the white and black swans to be portrayed by the same performer and is not convinced Nina can exhibit the sensual and seductive nature the latter role requires. Nina is eventually cast in both roles, but as she drives herself to meet the requirements asked of her, the demands of both the white and black swan begin to manifest themselves on her sanity.
The hard work that goes into achieving greatness seems to be apparent from everyone involved with Black Swan, as every technical aspect of this feature is stunning. One of the most striking elements of Black Swan is the editing. At times, it is so direct and rapid that it keeps the audience alert and involved in every moment of the film. It feels like your privacy is being invaded and this aspect heightens the sense of horror and apprehension.
The design elements of Black Swan are as exquisite as watching divine balletic movements. The opening sequence in which Nina dreams of being the white swan is beautiful and reminiscent of classic cinema, and as frightening as some of the makeup looks it is as equally dazzling as the actual choreography.
Ballet is often seen as a profession that requires individuals to be flawlessly elegant, but the truth is ballet movements are not naturally produced, often requiring tough training to replicate them. I’m pleased Black Swan does not shy away from demonstrating the hardships a ballet dancer’s body goes through. One example of this is when Nina is doing her daily routine. The audience not only sees her contort her body but hears it as well; with toes and shoulders grinding and cracking it will have everyone watching writhing at the sounds.
The journey of the central character is enthralling, with Portman giving an impressive career-best performance as Nina. She is convincingly naïve for a woman of her age, but her transformation into a destructive narcissist is equally credible. The supporting cast is also delightfully woven into the plot from Mila Kunis’s carefree Lily, who is brought in as Nina’s understudy, to Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who attempts to pressure Nina to succeed in order to fulfill her own self-dissatisfaction. Vincent Cassel as Thomas is also convincing, constantly critical of Nina’s efforts both professionally and personally. From Cassel’s performance alone, I can genuinely believe the ballet industry has artistic directors who behave like this.
The score by Clint Mansell is brilliant and complements the film’s feel. His reworking of Tchaikovsky’s original music with added percussion and reverberated sounds adds furthermore to Nina’s distorted sanity. It intensifies the drama and this is particularly the case within the closing scene of the film.
Black Swan is both captivatingly entertaining as well as an incredible piece of filmmaking. There are many satisfyingly grotesque moments and thrills combined with beautiful cinematic artistry. However excessive Black Swan might appear, it portrays well the theme of people pushing themselves to extremes to succeed, and how some become too preoccupied in their quest for greatness that they lose their mind in the process.