By Ezra Stead
Black Swan, USA, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
The latest film from visionary director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) continues to show his versatility and determination to not make the same film twice. Originally slated to direct the upcoming David O. Russell film The Fighter, Aronofsky understandably considered the project too similar to his previous film, 2008’s The Wrestler, and opted instead to make the intense, hallucinatory madhouse that is Black Swan.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, an up-and-coming ballet dancer in New York City who finds herself in the lead role of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She is initially chosen for the role as a replacement for veteran dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) because she embodies the qualities of the White Swan – grace and beauty. Her technical perfection is clear, but her lusty French director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, in his best English-language role to date), insists that she find her dark side, the Black Swan representing cunning and sensuality.
Complicating this is her tense and co-dependent relationship with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who lives vicariously through and passive-aggressively manipulates Nina, and her complex feelings about fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who represents a threat to Nina’s coveted lead role by being the perfect personification of the Black Swan.
Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin rework the storyline of the ballet itself into an unexpectedly intense and horrific film, more similar to a horror film from Dario Argento (Suspiria, Opera) than a quiet night at the ballet. As Aronofsky has said, “Swan Lake is about a young woman turned into a half-swan, half-human creature by an evil magician. When I heard that, I realized, oh, wow – this is a werewolf story.” With this approach, the film reaches peaks of histrionic insanity without sacrificing fascinating and believable character development, as well as a gradually building suspense that keeps an audience rapt, though not completely comfortable.
Aronofsky is one of the best directors out there at working with actors and coaxing out their finest work (Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Hugh Jackman in The Fountain, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler), and this one is no exception; Natalie Portman is excellent, easily eclipsing her bland work in the new Star Wars trilogy and stomach-curdling cuteness in the horrendously overrated Garden State (2004). Just as her character plunges headlong into obsessive madness in pursuit of the role of a lifetime, Portman shows similar dedication to the film, purportedly training five hours a day for a full year just to perfect the physical requirements of the role. Her gradual change from the graceful but repressed White Swan to the manic, untamed Black Swan she eventually becomes is utterly convincing and, at times, seriously chilling. The supporting cast is also very good, especially Winona Ryder’s brief but crucial turn as the “Dying Swan,” the equivalent of All About Eve‘s Margo Channing (Bette Davis) to Nina’s Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter).
It is in these elements that the film shows its thematic connections to Aronofsky’s own The Wrestler, even down to the way the camera follows Nina as it did Rourke’s Randy the Ram in that film. The point Aronofsky is making about fame and recognition in each of these films is the same, despite the extreme changes in style and genre. Indeed, all of his films, from 1998’s Pi to 2006’s underrated masterpiece The Fountain, explore these same ideas of the obsessive pursuit of a goal that is ultimately unattainable and destructive (the dreams of Requiem‘s protagonists, the ultimate knowledge sought by Max Cohen in Pi, the immortality sought by Tommy Creo in The Fountain). In fact, Black Swan‘s Nina and The Wrestler‘s Randy the Ram are seeking the same immortality, by sacrificing themselves for the love of the crowd.
Though Black Swan shares these themes with many other excellent films by Aronofsky and others, as well as displaying stylistic influence from films like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), it is a bold and original film in its own right. Aronofsky is perhaps the most interesting filmmaker working in the U.S. today, and even his reported decision to direct the next X-Men spin-off Wolverine movie only inspires me with confidence in that production. After all, Logan is as tortured by his own immortality as any other indestructible superhero, and I have no doubt that Aronofsky’s The Wolverine will explore that to the fullest.
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