Darren Aronofsky originally intended to make a single film about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballerina. That didn’t work out as planned, and so ‘The Wrestler’ (2008) was made first, with ‘Black Swan’ following two years later. Despite being divided into separate stories, the films remain as companion pieces. The ring and the stage are entirely different worlds, but the films examine a common theme: the destruction of oneself for the sake of performance. Aronofsky tackles the idea with a more edgy approach this time round, but there is no doubt that the two films are opposite sides of the same coin.
Ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) is determined to land the leading role in her company’s production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’. Her innocence, elegance and delicacy make her a perfect candidate for the White Swan, one half of the character. The same traits prevent her from playing the titular Black Swan, which is aggressive, seductive and dark. As Nina struggles to embody both halves of the character, she begins to lose her grip on reality. Things are made worse by an oppressive mother, an imposing director and a talented rival who threatens to snatch the role away.
Portman does a phenomenal job as Nina. She plays her emotions and her frailty with such conviction that her mental disintegration feels natural and credible. Her dedication to the role is obvious – shrinking down to unhealthy proportions and training tirelessly for a year transformed her into a proper ballerina. Even more impressively, she manages to act and keep up with the crazy choreography at the same time, doing both so flawlessly that an Oscar is inevitable.
The camerawork by Matthew Libatique perfectly communicates the frantic nature of the story. Mirrors are used creatively, and the liberal use of the close-up, especially during the dancing, creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that compliments the film’s sinister nature. Clint Mansell’s score is a brilliantly creepy reworking of Tchaikovsky’s pieces. It is an effective composition, perfectly reflecting the film’s mix of beauty and menace.
Somewhat disappointingly, the first half of ‘Black Swan’ is a little slow, with an over-emphasis on setting up the story. There is also perhaps slightly too great a focus on the dancing. However, the pace allows for the mood to build and build until a truly insane final act that delivers a satisfying payoff.
The works of Cronenberg, Polanski and Lynch – all of them masters of uncomfortable cinema – echo throughout. ‘Black Swan’ combines the body horror of ‘The Fly’, the paranoia of ‘The Tenant’, and the surrealism of ‘Mulholland Drive’ in a blend of menace so varied that it keeps the audience genuinely uneasy throughout. Yet Aronofsky does not rely on others to hold up his film. He has taken the tools crafted by others and created for himself a refreshingly demented film. In his own way, he combines beauty and perfection with madness and paranoia. Ballet is meant to be graceful, but the mood that Aronofsky creates is one of frenzy. There are scary films, and there are are beautiful films, and it is in the juxtaposition of the two that Aronofsky triumphs.
Over the years, Aronofsky has built himself a solid reputation for making films that are difficult to put in a box, and ‘Black Swan’ is no different. It doesn’t know if it wants to be beautiful or ugly, so it is a mash-up of both. It aims to seduce and repulse at the same time, and it succeeds. Never has a film been so simultaneously elegant and vulgar. It is uncomfortable and occasionally nasty, and yet it is one of the most exhilarating in recent cinema.