Black swan is a brave, beautiful and often wholly terrifying piece of film making from acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky. There has been much criticism recently regarding the amount of actual dancing main actress Natalie Portman performed in her role, and perhaps also regarding the films eventual awards (or lack thereof). Particular criticism that I stand wholly in support of because, although Portman earned a much deserved academy award for best actress, the film is worthy of countless more as it truly is an incredible film- one which expertly explores the capabilities of the human mind and body and the possibility of losing ones self in a futile search for perfection.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, in an impeccable performance that will probably be remembered as the best of her career, a gifted but emotionally fragile ballerina who earns the role of a lifetime as the new swan queen in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She is glacially beautiful to look at but clearly stunted, both socially and sexually as she shares a claustrophobic home with her over bearing mother and reacts to the men around her with frigid intensity. The company’s artistic director, played with a subtle sleaziness by Vincent Cassel, is at first unsure of casting Nina in this particular role, as although he agrees she embodies the essence of a ‘white swan’, it is the sexual ferocity and danger of the black swan that she lacks. It is only after he attempts to seduce her after hours and she retaliates by biting his lip, that he perhaps sees a fleeting flash of this potential and gives her the leading part. But Nina is no black swan- she is incredibly sensitive, desperate for perfection and control and reacts badly to any sign of confrontation or rivalry, such as the kind she associates with a seductive, tattooed ballerina named Lilly.
Watching black swan is similar to being trapped in a nightmare, where everything is cold and beautiful on the outside but something dark and deadly is constantly bubbling underneath the surface waiting to emerge. I sat through serene dance sequences on the edge of my seat, poised for something terrible to inevitably happen. This feeling remains for the entirety of the film and is mostly due to the incredibly surreal and creepy atmosphere director Aronofsky creates and his subtle changes in tone that instinctively tell us something is not quite right. The same can be said of the characters in the film, although it is fairly easy to pin-point certain nuances of Portman’s ballerina that make us uneasy. She sleeps in a childishly innocent bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals, tearfully dodges any mention of sexuality and has strange marks on her back that hint at self harm- marks that truly come into their own during her bone-cracking metamorphosis. However, it is the characters around her that truly unsettle, especially that of her mother who seems so manically intent on forcing dancing success upon her daughter that we find ourselves questioning the motives behind an accident with nail scissors . After all, would Nina really need to contemplate barricading her bedroom door with a pipe or have to fight her way out of the house to see a friend, if their relationship was as sweet and harmless as it seemed at the beginning of the film? It is questions like these that give much to be discussed and debated once the film is over and constantly niggle in the backs of our minds when we consider motives and possible psychological reasons for what eventually happens.
For all its beauty and stylish cinematography, Black Swan is not always an easy film to watch and certainly not one that can be shaken off after the credits roll. What we are helplessly witnessing is the ultimate destruction of beauty and the slow disintegration of a fragile psyche, as a talented young woman pushes herself to the absolute limits of her ability and slowly advances towards her own destruction. The films ending is both incredibly powerful and in a sense extremely peaceful, as Nina dies to the sound of rapturous applause after she gives the flawless performance she has yearned for, and the audience shares in her catharsis as the film fades into a perfect, blinding white. Despite its stunning dance choreography and psycho-sexual thrills, Black swan works best when considered a true horror film. One that blurs the line between reality and dangerous fantasy and crawls directly under our skin and clings there with dark, insatiable power. In short, a diabolical masterpiece.