(Darren Aronofsky, 2010, USA)
Whereas Darren Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler spotlight the gritty redemptive tale of a fading professional wrestler and his passion to return to the peak of his success, Black Swan channels this passion but focuses on an entirely different sport and an entirely different aspiration for its desperate protagonist. Somewhat giving cinematic definition to the term psychological thriller, Aronofsky’s latest, Black Swan, is a beguiling, nightmarish tale of obsession and aspiration set in the aggressive world of ballet.
At the films centre is Nina Sayers (played with astute zeal by Natalie Portman) a fractured, overprotected woman who’s yearning for perfection is fuelled by her forceful mother (Barbara Hershey), who’s glory days as a professional dancer have long passed her by. A skilled ballerina herself, Nina finally gets the recognition she has been promised when her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) casts her as the lead in an upcoming ‘stripped down’ production of Swan Lake. Her ability to perform the willowy role of the White Swan is effortless, but what Nina lacks is the capacity to embrace the darkness and seductiveness required for the Black Swan, who she must simultaneously play. As Thomas’s attempts to rid her of her meek one-sidedness prove increasingly futile, another dancer in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis) who embodies all the necessary requirements for the latter role, begins to catch his eye, provoking Nina to take drastic actions to fend off the competition. As Nina begins to lose herself in her inner darkness, the walls separating reality and fantasy become muddled, making way for physical and mental disillusionment and dangerous, psychosexual hallucinations.
Cleverly reworking the story of Swan Lake within the claustrophobic confines of New York City, Aronofsky has created an impressively haunting film in Black Swan and proves once again that he is the master of creating challenging films out of seemingly mundane frameworks. His shadowy colour pallet is matched by the striking visuals that he has become known for and he once again utilises composer Clint Mansell to modify Tchaikovsky’s sensual original score, which horrifies as much as it exhilarates. Matthew Libatique’s hand-held, cinema verité-esque cinematography is used to perfection, mimicking the characters movements and effectively placing us alongside the characters gliding across the screen, giving a sense of reality even when the film dances between the real and the surreal.
Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes immediately springs to mind when watching the Black Swan; even if they are completely different films they share themes of obsession and desire which has perhaps become synonymous within this niche genre (if you can call it that). Though Black Swan never matches the beauty of The Red Shoes, Aronofsky imbues his film with visual contrasts and sexual metaphors aplenty, which are as obvious as they are slightly jarring. It is not a perfect film either, you get the sense that Aronofsky is throwing as many cinematic references and symbols onscreen as possible and although most work, it does feel a little over the top at times. Also, while the slim budget lends the film an impressive verité style, the special effects are slightly underdone and noticeable.
Although Black Swan isn’t the director’s best film, it is a great follow-up to the superior The Wrestler and an indication of just how visually accomplished Aronofsky has become since his debut feature Pi back in 1998. It is difficult to analyse the film fully as Aronofsky has created such a multi-layered smorgasbord of ideas which demands to be seen again, something I was all too ready to do once the credits began to roll. A story about the nightmarish pursuit of perfection and its ultimate consequences, Black Swan is essential viewing.