As we waited for the lights to go down and the Virginia Film Festival, the lady sitting next to me said she’d heard Aronofsky was a difficult director to watch. It’s true, and that’s what makes it always so rewarding. And Black Swan is no exception. It takes an unflinching look at a culture of women pushing their bodies to the limits of human endurance — literally killing themselves in their search for perfection.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is one of the most dedicated dancers in her New York City ballet company, and her lifetime of hard work is about to pay off. She’s been picked to replace the company’s longtime prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) as the swan queen in a new adaptation of Swan Lake, which blends the roles of Odette and Odile — the white and black swans. But while her technical precision makes her a natural for the white swan’s role, she lacks the emotional power to properly carry off the black swan’s part. Driven by an overbearing stage mother (Barbara Hershey), a licentious director (Vincent Cassel), a new rival (Mila Kunis) who is everything she isn’t, and the stress of the starring role itself, Nina pushes towards unleashing her buried passions and finally achieving the perfection she dreams of.
Aronofsky builds the suspense gracefully, carefully, but powerfully. His palette consists almost exclusively of blacks, greys, and whites, and he slides consistently and methodically from one end to the other as the movie progresses. The camera darts and weaves as if part of the dance itself, always finding the most stunning close-ups. The visual effects are amazingly well-rendered and realistic, and the sound editing is simply brilliant. The score — composed by (who else but) Clint Mansell — takes Tchaikovsky’s original score for Swan Lake and twists it in completely new and sometimes shocking ways. And the creepy elements start very small and subtle, but they grow to a fever pitch as Nina’s dark side threatens to break through, and the action reaches (ironically) operatic heights.
Which is sort of where Black Swan loses more timid viewers. The movie goes very far over-the-top, and Aronofsky makes no apologies for it. Instead he asks us to grab on to this thing and embrace its passion, riding it all the way until its stunning climax. He’s earned it, though, having convinced his cast to do the exact same thing. Cassel immerses himself in his oleaginous character, Ryder hasn’t acted like this since Girl, Interrupted over a decade ago, and Kunis builds admirably on the career rise she started with The Book of Eli, earlier this year.
But nothing compares to Portman’s performance, which she throws herself into with reckless abandon. From her scared timidity at the outset to her frustration, confusion, and rage as the darkness starts to emerge more and more insistently, to her seraphic climax, she is completely lost within the character. I can’t remember ever seeing anything like it. I know it’s a review cliché, but I’m fully expecting to see her on stage next February.
Aronofsky’s vision is bold, visually striking, and unlike anything else on the screen in a long time. Be warned, but be there.
Worth it: yes, front and center to catch every aspect at full firehose force.
Bechdel test: pass.