Darren Aronofsky’s erotic psychological thriller Black Swan channels Roman Polanksi’s classic gothic-horror masterpiece Repulsion in its depiction of a young girl battling Freudian demons. Her inability to deal with the tremendous pressure and mental strain that her new found success brings warps her perception of reality and begins to tear apart her life. As in Polanksi’s 1965 chiller, which has only grown in reputation and stature in the years since its release, the horrors that plague our young protagonist stem from sexual inexperience—a lingering childhood innocence she has yet to shed—and the unwanted advances of promiscuous men and manifest themselves as violent acts of lust. It is a disturbing film as well as a beautiful one that meditates on perfectionism as well as human sexuality.
Nina, a driven young ballerina who has recently earned top billing in her company’s production of “Swan Lake,” finds her strive for technical perfection hampered only by her inability to “lose herself” in her dancing—a repression of maturity that does not allow Nina to find the lust in her dancing that will allow her to become a truly great dancer and inhabit her characters. Nina must not only play the pristine White Swan but also the wicked Black Swan that steals the White Swan’s true love and drives her to suicide. The goodness with which Nina leads her life—a life that is dictated by her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey)—prevents her from fully embodying the wicked Black Swan. Nina’s mother, at once caring and then cruelly overbearing, warns Nina not to push herself too hard for the role, to which Nina reminds her mother that she never even had a decent career of her own. Hershey is equally heartbreaking and cringe-inducing the has-been mom and the mother-daughter relationship provides a real human element to the story that serves as the emotional buttress that allows Aronofsky to take his film in surreal and horrific directions. Without this sense of reality to keep coming back to, a type of realistic root note which the film pivots around, the more fantastical elements of the film would not be nearly as terrifying or emotional resonant.
As is the case in Repulsion, Nina’s horrors personify themselves as sexual fantasies and grotesque mutilations, the latter of which was unfortunately shown far too extensively in the film trailers, ruining some of the more shocking moments of the film. Nevertheless, there are more truly scary moments in this film than in the entirety of the Friday the 13th film series but it never relies on gore or makes your stomach churn. It is more Alien than Saw, starting slowly and building suspense before it tears the rug out from under you and erupts in a cataclysmic mental breakdown. Unlike Polanksi’s film, which is a somber exercise in art-house horror that never really gives us a chance to get to know the mentally warped female character and therefore cannot expect us to sympathize with her, Black Swan gives us an empathetic character we can relate to, whose desires and fears reflect those that every artist faces.
Nina is brought to vivid life by an astonishing Natalie Portman, who gives a physically daring performance. Portman seems to have finally put the Star Wars prequel disasters behind her as she disappears in her character, which is fascinating given that Nina is unable to lose herself in her Black Swan character. Looking as gaunt and ravished as we’ve ever seen her, the usually pretty Portman reaches down into some dark corner of her mind to give us a terrifying portrayal of an artist struggling to meet her own stratospheric expectations. Always electric French leading man Vincent Cassel, unfortunately reserved only for cheap diabolical villains in most American films, is skin-crawlingly perfect as the hands-on company director who sees some “bite” in Nina and encourages her down the road to sexual awakening. He straddles the line between decency and venomous as he presses himself against Nina, his hand reaching up her thighs, telling her, “That was me seducing you; it has to be the other way around.” He has moments in which he seems decent and honestly wants Nina to succeed, only to reveal himself as a selfish sexually-driven man. He knows ballet and knows talent when he sees it, but it is his demand for perfection and young lust that drives Nina down her road path. Cassel is compelling as always; he makes you uncomfortable every time he is alone with Nina. Mila Kunis is also well-cast as the effortlessly seductive foil to Nina’s uptight perfectionist, showing some of the real emotional depth she hinted at in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Winona Ryder makes a welcome extended-cameo as the once-lauded and now washed-up ballerina who acts as a glimpse of what Nina may become.
But even with the stellar cast and great production values (the cinematography unquestionably deserves an Oscar nod) the film belongs to Aronofsky, who has struck a balance between the visual dictatorship he displayed in the technically brilliant downer Requiem for a Dream and the raw hand-held voyeurism he used in The Wrestler. Aronofsky keeps the tone consistently unnerving and always accessible, never making the film a chore as Repulsion sometimes is but rewarding those who pay close attention and those who have a prior knowledge of his films. The film gains steam and grows steadily more intense as it reaches the end. It doesn’t really have one large climax, as might seem appropriate in a sexually-energized film like this, but rather has a series of smaller moments of realization for Nina and ourselves; shots that stay with you as you leave the theater. Without giving much away, the ending is perfectly melodramatic, close in tone to Requiem and without the uncertainty of The Wrestler that left many casual moviegoers disappointed. The director doesn’t let visual prowess overshadow the writing as he did in his noble failure The Fountain and wisely allows his camera to sit on Portman for longer shots, keeping her in frame while she dances out of focus and back into focus show it was her jette-ing across the stage, her doing the elaborate ballet routines. The editing is not quick and sloppy as in many modern thrillers. Aronofsky has confidence in his actors, evident in the performances of Ellen Burstyn and Mickey Rourke (both Academy Award nominated) in Requiem and The Wrestler, respectively, and allows Portman to create her own Nina and display her torment in both subtle and explosive moments. We cannot take our eyes away from the slow-boil of Nina’s self-destruction.
By keeping the CGI and lavish effects shot to a minimum and instead using clever lighting and motifs to create nightmarish imagery, Aronofsky has ensured that his film will age gracefully, like Polanski’s. It boasts the female performance of the year and should be the front-runner for direction, but the Academy is notoriously spiteful of thrillers, with Silence of the Lambs being the only real thriller to win in the last two decades, although The Hurt Locker was a step in the right direction, thankfully winning over Cameron’s Dances-With-Aliens blockbuster Avatar. Hopefully Black Swan is recognized for its brilliance and not dismissed for its use of horror elements to tell a gripping story. The film is melodramatic, for sure, but its narrative flaws and sometimes less-than revolutionary plotting is easily compensated for by the bold direction and emotionally-draining performances.
Side note: Interestingly, the most brilliant aspect of Black Swan may be its marketing campaign. After the modest box office revenue of Aronofsky’s last three films, despite A-list actors and outstanding production values, the Hollywood ad men have finally figured out how to sell an Aronofsky melodrama to mainstream audiences. Ads have emphasized the horror elements of the film and barely make mention that nearly the entire film is centered around the ballet scenes. This is, essentially, a movie about ballet and perfectionism in art. The extensive sexual promiscuity which Nina is fighting, arguably the driving emotional core of the film, is barely mentioned at all in advertisements or reviews. (Perhaps the producers asked themselves how many mainstream film goers would actually pay to see a melodrama ballet film about sexually-abused girl who is going insane?) By selling the film as a Cronenberg-style body horror film the producers have not only guaranteed that they’ll have a hit, but that they may have landed a best picture nomination, since ticket sales are actually taken into account with the Best Picture nominations (something that has been controversial in recent years with film critics and movie buffs). The Coen Brothers may put up a good fight with their remake of True Grit for both Best Picture and Director, and they may very well deserve it for rejuvenating a cliché-riddled John Wayne film and creating the best western since, well, their own No Country for Old Men. But don’t be surprised if a huge following of Aronofsky fans start a petition to land the inspired director an Oscar this February.
Greg Cwik, Editor