Black Swan (2010)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
“You know the story.” Or so you thought. In director Darren Aronofsky’s latest psychological thriller, Black Swan, the classic story Swan Lake is turned into a haunting tale of deception and mystery. Like most Aronofsky films, it’s the ending that provides the metaphorical “punch in the gut,” and the directive genius delivers once again.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman in her Oscar-winning performance) is an aspiring ballet star, who lands the prestigious lead role in her esteemed company’s twisted version of Swan Lake. The artsy company leader Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has faith in her ability to play half of the role, the innocent White Swan. Her tougher role will be her “metamorphosis” (as Thomas puts it) into the deceitful twin—the Black Swan. Adding to the plot are Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s laid back, “effortless” competition, and Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the former lead dancer, being forced to retire at the end of the season.
Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, and winner of one (Portman’s Best Actress), Black Swan clearly won the hearts of many with multiple fascinating aspects. Clearly, acting—and especially Portman’s—plays a tremendous role in the success of this motion picture. Portman, not often the greatest character actress, comes out of her shell for the role of her—and her character’s—life. She showed great naivety and adolescence as Nina in the beginning of the film, but when Nina matured throughout the movie, Portman followed suit. Kunis is wonderful as the chill San Francisco transfer. She looks as if she is playing herself, which is probably not far from the truth. Cassel is a dud, missing his target as the “respectable” company leader, and seducer, Thomas Leroy. His accent worked well in many of the scenes, but at times it clashed with the more contemporary words, as well as the inappropriate ones. Ryder played a very minor, but valuable role, as she struck fear into my heart during multiple scenes in the film.
In the story, Nina lives a sheltered, childish life at home with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), an equally unstable former ballerina. Her mother cares for her greatly, but perhaps too greatly. She ensures Nina gets sleep in her pink butterfly-décor bedroom before her performance, and has not allowed her to pierce her ears in all Nina’s twenty-some years. Nina is soft-spoken, and her demeanor is like that of a small child or a shelter dog. However, as Nina matures in her ballet, she also matures as an adult. She disposes of her stuffed toys and shatters her beloved ballerina jewelry box. She shouts at her incessant mother, “I’m not twelve anymore!” Then, it gets even deeper, but there’s no need to spoil an impeccable ending. What it creates is a tour de force, an instant classic that will forever go down as the best ballet movie in history.
Just as well as Nina’s psychological condition is important to the success of Natalie Portman, her mother’s crumbling psyche also plays a part. Near the beginning, Erica may foreshadow her relative insanity when she assures Nina, “I mean, you start getting older, there’s all this ridiculous pressure. I understand.” Being a former ballerina herself may have led Erica to the same places Nina’s mind goes. Later in the film, Erica almost disposes of a perfectly good, brand new cake—bought in celebration of Nina’s achievement—simply because Nina’s stomach was too in knots to eat it. In the end, the truth about Erica’s mind is still not revealed, and whether or not she is the next victim to a more progressed self-inflicted insanity, we will never know.
Music is also key to the effectiveness of this ominous allegory of a film. As is often the case for music, Black Swan’s soundtrack shines a light on how its main character is feeling. With composed tracks (most of which pay homage to the master Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake’s original writer and composer) titled “It’s My Time” and “A Room of Her Own,” it’s no surprise these tracks allow us to hear the soundtrack of Nina’s discontented mind. Without the powerful, balletic music, Black Swan’s ferocious ending wouldn’t pack the punch that it does.
Aronofsky, director of such masterpieces as The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi, creates arguably his best work yet—being nominated for Best Achievement in Directing, the first Oscar nomination of his career. What are phenomenal are the similarities between his most notable films. The four mentioned, including Black Swan, all involve a character striving for personal greatness or happiness. Their struggle for personal satisfaction often ends in a dark, yet exciting, end (it is part of the reason the film carries an “R” rating). Essentially, the case can be made that Aronofsky is the master of neo-noir, as his characters (including Nina) experience paranoia, loss of innocence, despair, moral corruption, and fear, and his plots often begin joyous but end pessimistically in despair. Throughout the film, Aronofsky leads his cast to an incredible display of beauty, darkness, and love.
With a director as masterful as Aronofsky, symbolism lingers around every corner, making the movie much for meaningful, deep, and truly memorable than more films. One ideal example would be Aronofsky’s use of mirrors in Black Swan. Mirrors, commonplace and expected in places like ballet studios and bathrooms, are also seen throughout the movie in such spaces as the kitchen, bedrooms, fitting rooms, and living rooms.
On multiple websites decomposing certain dream subjects, mirrors represent a “move forward in life” and a “link between the conscious and the unconscious,” both of which describe perfectly the plot that follows Nina Sayers. As mentioned before, Nina progresses greatly in maturity as her ballet does, and from beginning to end there is an obvious move forward in her life. Also, as her psychological state deteriorates, we can see parts of Nina’s unconscious begin to take over her conscious. Nina’s psychology is obviously an important aspect of the thriller, and Aronofsky’s use of mirrors is just one of the minute, yet vital facets of the picture.
Black Swan, the metaphorical wonder that it is, uses plenty of special assets to set it apart from its fellow psycho-thrillers. Its powerful music, successful acting, genius directing, gripping plot, and depth of symbolism lead this movie to an unfortunate Best Picture snub. I can’t recommend this movie enough; it is a work of art that climbs to the top of the list when it comes to psychological-thrillers. In fewer words, Black Swan is dark and graceful enough to make any viewer a lifelong balletomane—a ballet enthusiast.
Black Swan is out on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you don’t at least rent it, you’ll regret your decision.