Austin Film Festival 2010 Review: BLACK SWAN
Editor's note: This review was originally published on November 11, 2010.
Darren Aronofsky is a director that is consistently full of surprises. When it was announced that the follow-up to his strikingly straightforward character piece, THE WRESTLER, would be a ballet film, it was hard to imagine which direction he would go. Would it be another touching drama or something as bizarre and mysterious as THE FOUNTAIN? The answer, as it turns out, is that BLACK SWAN rests somewhere in between as a beautiful and haunting character exploration and study in duality about a dancer's quest for perfection and the internal and external evils that she must avoid and embrace.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a New York ballerina living with her former-dancer mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). When her ballet company's artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), selects her to be the dual leads in Swan Lake, Nina thrusts herself into it with her signature drive to be the absolute best. However, when a new dancer named Lilly (Mila Kunis) joins the company, Nina finds herself struggling to maintain the approval of Thomas and find the right motivation for the darker material in Swan Lake, particularly that of the "Black Swan" role - something that seems to come naturally to Lilly. She sees mysterious figures in dark corners and mirrors, her mother is pushing her harder than ever, and the strange marks on her back (which her mother blames on Nina's scratching habit) seem to be coming from below the surface.
One of the most striking aspects of BLACK SWAN is Aronofsky's insistence on placing subtext in the foreground - something that is set up from the very beginning when the scratch marks on Nina's back are discovered. These blemishes become the portal through which Nina's repressed other half threatens to break through - it's the only thing kept under the surface for any period of time. Everything else is expressed openly, from the stark contrast of the black and white interior design of Thomas' office and home to the dichotomous relationship between Nina and Lilly - their attitudes and actions are usually equal and opposite. By keeping these elements superficial, establishing an open rapport with the audience, Aronofsky can more easily pull the rug out from under everyone - and he does so gleefully. When he is not completely disrupting his well-established visual and aural palette with a dizzyingly flashy and loud club scene, he is spinning scenes of beauty into moments of sheer insanity and terror.
Tonally, Aronofsky takes several cues from Italian horror cinema of the '70s and '80s. More than a couple moments have a distinct Mario Bava quality and many more feel as if they could exist in Michele Soavi's dance studio slasher STAGEFRIGHT. It creates a sense of uneasiness and primes the audience for the more bizarre moments when reality and possible-fantasy collide in some spectacularly creepy scenes. As Nina strives harder to prepare for her dual roles, she must learn to get in touch with a side of herself that is less than perfect, the "Black Swan," the devious and sexually awakened counterpart to the role she has played her whole life - the "White Swan." As she does this, her world, which is built entirely on her struggle for perfection, seems to be falling apart. Things begin to figuratively and literally rip at the seams.
Portman is an inspired choice for the star of BLACK SWAN. She has an undeniable beauty and grace, the smooth curves of her neck are more than once framed such that it is evocative of a swan's. When her character Nina claims her only goal is to obtain perfection, the viewer can imagine it being achievable. However, when the "Black Swan" peaks through, the audience is reminded that Portman can also channel more rough-edged characters with ease. Portman's greatest challenge is portraying this struggle without becoming melodramatic and she pulls it off effortlessly.
Barbara Hershey (with some seriously excellent makeup work - she looks far more homely than one can imagine) is the second biggest standout here as Nina's mother, Erica. The quality of her entire performance, which is a balance of over-attentiveness and something akin to pure evil, is summed up in a key scene in which, combined with a brilliant bit of pithy scripting, Hershey conveys her entire character's history and drive in a half-dozen or so lines in a conversation with Portman.
Mila Kunis appears very comfortable in her character, a fun-loving ballerina who enjoys the spicier side of life at times. Her Lilly is a perfect (and perhaps unwitting) foil for Portman's Nina. Vincent Cassel plays artistic director Thomas Leroy with a boyish playfulness, undeniably a brilliant artist with a strong grasp of what makes ballet appealing, he is also acutely aware of the power her holds over these women who strive to be recognized as the best of the best.
Speaking of the thriftiness of dialogue, the script is quite exacting in its quest to drive the story forward with as little useless chatter as possible. This is great on paper, but in hands less capable than Aronofsky's things could have proven disastrous. Fortunately, though, the marriage of script and director works exceedingly well here. Beyond the aforementioned Italian influences, Aronofsky seems to have a drive to violate the art of ballet while simultaneously paying tribute to its primal sensuality. He does so by shooting scenes of ballet handheld and up-close, injecting the camera into the dance at provocative angles. The sound design, combined with extreme close-ups of feet at several moments, give the feeling of bones breaking - ballet is a deadly serious art in Aronofky's hands. Clint Mansell, Aronofsky's long time musical collaborator, outdoes himself with a rich orchestral score that feels right out of the most intense ballets - the film would not be at all the same without it.
It seems impossible to talk about BLACK SWAN without mentioning the equally stunning 1948 classic THE RED SHOES. In context of Aronfosky's film, though, with the constant in-your-face dichotomy, Powell and Pressburger's THE RED SHOES is the glossy, melodramatic counterpart to the dark tale of BLACK SWAN. Reducing it to the simplest terms - BLACK SWAN is the Grimm fairytale to THE RED SHOES' Disney version. This extends to every level of the filmmaking process, too, as Powell and Pressburger utilize much more classic techniques to complement the art of ballet while expanding it as a storytelling device visually, whereas Aronofsky throws those same techniques out the window, instead choosing to rip the sexuality of it all onto the surface with his probing camera. He turns the quest for ballet greatness into a thriller, sharpening the edges with horror elements. It works perfectly as the flip-side to any ballet film one would conceivably expect to see, a wonderful and scary surprise of a movie.
A near-flawless combination of elements make BLACK SWAN one of the year's best films and Aronofsky's most consistently and cohesively brilliant work.