Sometimes I wish I got a second viewing of a film before I wrote the review. Black Swan throws so much at you with its layers of symbolism, psychosexual metaphors, and rich thematic undertones. And instead of furiously scribbling notes, I let myself become lost in Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous cinematography, Clint Mansell rich score, and Natalie Portman’s phenomenal performance. I wanted to pick apart and analyze Black Swan but director Darren Aronofsky had to go and create another brilliant movie that I wanted to see again as soon as the end credits began to roll.
The story is a clever re-fashioning of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Portman plays Nina Sayers: a sheltered, single-minded ballerina in present-day New York City who finally gets a shot at stardom when her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) casts her as the White Swan and the Black Swan in a “stripped-down” re-telling of Swan Lake. Nina, who’s goal in life is to attain perfection, has no problem performing the role of the White Swan, but is too restrained to tap into the darkness and lust required by the Black Swan. As Tomas berates and harasses her about her emotional shortcomings, Nina is faced with a rivalry from Lily (Mila Kunis), another ballerina who lacks Nina’s control but conveys more passion and embodies the darkness Thomas is looking for in the Black Swan role. In Lily, Nina may have found a new friend or a dangerous enemy.
Oh, and did I mention that Nina is going batshit fucking loco? That she’s hallucinating, scratching at herself, and possibly turning into a human-swan hybrid? Because that’s also happening.
Black Swan takes a huge risk by shooting a surreal, psychological thriller with a cinema verite-style, but the gamble pays off in a big way. Libatique’s camera not only dances and glides with the performers, but adds a strong sense of realism to the first half of the film so that when Nina really goes off the deep end, you’re completely enthralled and captivated by her unhinged reality. The inspired cinematography manages to craft a visual presentation that is both immediate and otherworldly.
Adding to the rich tapestry is composer Clint Mansell’s gorgeous spin off Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake. I’ve never seen Swan Lake (and now I must, obviously) so I don’t know the depth of the musical cues, but Mansell twists an inspired score that exhilarates, terrifies, and helps brings the viewer even deeper into Nina’s madness. While I wouldn’t say it’s better than his score for The Fountain, it’s yet another testament to why Mansell is one of the best composers working in Hollywood today.
While the technical craft behind Black Swan is incredible, this movie couldn’t work without Portman. She is astounding and while she’s done roles in the past that have hinted at the darkness and depth she could achieve, with Black Swan you see an actress at the top of her game. Not only is she performing the thrilling dance sequences (beautifully choreographed by costar Benjamin Millepied), but she embraces Nina’s slow decent into insanity with such compelling grace and sadness. Portman displays an enchanting softness with Nina’s naivety and innocence, but she also has no difficulty in embracing the character’s dark side in a way that feels organic and honest to the story. It’s one of the best performances of the year and one of the best performances of her career.
I don’t know how much I can praise Darren Aronofsky for bringing this all together simply because I don’t want to bore you with a long list of complimentary adjectives. The guy has become one of my all-time favorite filmmakers and his uncompromising vision always manages to create a picture that is haunting yet earnest. While the film makes a nod to the psychological horror films of the 1960s and 70s, it’s a terrifying beast all its own. After seeing Black Swan, I not only wanted to see the movie again, but I wanted to see Swan Lake, Replusion, The Tenant, and The Red Shoes. The last film isn’t a psychological thriller, but it’s now got good company in the Awesome Movie Featuring Ballet section of the video store (your local video store may not be as genre-specific in their organization as mine).
Aronofsky has dreamed a beautiful nightmare with Black Swan. It explores themes of female sexuality, obsession, compulsions, fractured identity, and does so in a visually captivating and brutally honest manner that mischievously dances between the real and the surreal. Like its protagonist, the film is technically magnificent yet knows when to unravel and embrace a glorious madness. It’s an unforgettable thriller that demands repeat viewings as you want to fall further into Nina’s dark and demented universe.