Movie Review: Black Swan- Darren Aronofsky’s Surrealist Style Ignites a Beautifully Horrific Tale of a Psychosomatic Ballet Dancer’s Pressures
Filmmaking auteur Darren Aronofsky has always had difficulties getting his inspired and unique visions to life onto the big screen; most notably his financial problems on The Fountain and the absence of funding for a failed project entitled The Fighter. However, Aronofsky’s intense films focus on well developed characters that embody particular characteristics that are inherently human, either the downfall of vices in Requiem for a Dream or the struggle for meaning in his poignant and extremely underrated film The Wrestler. Aronofsky’s fifth film, Black Swan, at first glance is another brilliant thriller much like his debut film Pi but this time it’s an examination of a ballet dancer’s mentally fractured state as the pressures from her mother, her teacher, her competition, and her inner perfection begin to take their toll. Black Swan is both a demented version of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and a thematic replica of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion making the film difficult to label original but quite easy to recognize its brilliant use of characters to drive a surreal and intriguing psychological thriller that Aronofsky knows how to do so well. Throughout the film there is an incredible use of unsettling imagery linked to mental subjectivity where the line between reality and imagination begin to blur in a nightmarish way that truly makes Aronofsky more of an artist than your typical filmmaker. While Black Swan feels like a carbon copy of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a thriller that also looks to the inside of the mind rather than societies external effects, it is still a remarkable continuation on the theme of death that the surrealist auteur just recently explored in The Wrestler.
At the dark heart of the tale of Black Swan is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) a sexually innocent yet imaginative girl whose sole ambition is to be the perfect ballet dancer in technique and delivery that will hopefully catch her teacher’s eye. Nina still lives with her mother Erica Sayers (the great Barbara Hershey) who babies and oppresses her daughter with personality dominance and emotional manipulation much like the relationship in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. The mental strain that could already be attributed to her mother’s overbearing expectations only get worse when Nina is chosen to be the lead dancer in the company’s production of “Swan Lake.” Now her teacher Thomas (Vincent Cassel) and the threat of replacement from another company rival Lily (Mila Kunis) add to the mental fractured state that Nina already perceives. The world surrounding Nina begins to go out of control as her perception of reality and the deceiving nature of her emotions clash against each other. The screenwriters for Black Swan, including Darren Aronofsky himself, concocted a thematically familiar tale filled with intriguing characters that speak for themselves to how engaging a psychosomatic thriller the film ends up becoming. Certainly those unfamiliar with cinematic history with films that deal with the same sort of subject matter (Repulsion), setting (Red Shoes) or relationships (The Piano Teacher) will look upon Black Swan as an exceptional and original film, and they’d be only half correct. Black Swan is certainly exceptional in how Aronofsky is able to fully utilize his strengths as a surrealist auteur bringing to life a remarkably dark examination of a ballet dancer that is mentally deconstructing on the screen.
What makes an Aronofsky film so remarkable to experience is his ability to create an atmosphere that is as unsettling as it is welcoming. In Requiem for a Dream the spiraling world that the drug addicts experience is fascinating to behold in its creativity yet a horrid experience at the same time as the uncontrollable vices destroy everything sacred around the characters. Black Swan has this duel effect of creating a world in Nina’s perspective that has competing features: the real world pressures and the nightmare world’s power. Aronofsky visualizes different ways to express his protagonist’s mental instability that rival Polanski’s Repulsion, which uses dead animals and physical arms coming out of the walls to showcase the character’s psychotic tendencies. Instead Aronofsky uses paintings that come to life, Nina’s “deteriorating” body, and actual hallucinations including a Swan-like creature, Nina’s double, and physical transformation that appears gruesomely real. Each aspect of Nina’s psychotic pressure is done remarkably well showcasing Aronofsky’s talents as a director that can allow the risky elements of exploring the imagination, even our darkest nightmares, to be at the center of a film. While the real strength of Black Swan is the well written characters and the actors who are able to bring them to life, it wouldn’t have been possible without Aronofsky’s tactful approach to the thriller as he is able to make the audience question what is truth and what is perception. Keeping the audience’s attention in such an unsettling and strange film is difficult to do but Black Swan draws you into the nightmare that is Nina’s unstable and unsettling delusions with great camera work, well paced edited sequences, and an uncompromising imagination.
Natalie Portman heads this talented cast of dancers as a sexually deprived ballet perfectionist who won’t stand for anything else except for impressing the strict standards of her attractive teacher and surpass her mother’s expectations. Portman gives an over dramatized performance that has many scenes that many modern actresses only dream of. However, seeing the melodrama unfold only shows how talented and diverse Portman can be allowing the more over the top moments blend nicely with her elegance in the dancing and sensual sequences. She maintains control in a plausibly uncontrollable psychological world, which aids in making the film attainable to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily see such a strange film. Along side her is Mila Kunis who also gives a surprisingly engaging performance that you wouldn’t really have expected coming from her. She becomes increasingly more believable in her role as a potential rival and serves as a great extension of Nina’s own sexual and jealous delusions. Of course, Barbara Hershey is well suited to play the overbearing and oppressive motherly figure that stands out in every scene that she’s in. And even Vincent Cassel shows a great amount of talent that stands along side his other great performances such as his homophobic gangster in Eastern Promises or just this last year as the French crime lord in Mesrine. Without this great use of casting the more surreal aspects of Aronofsky’s film wouldn’t have worked, but there really is never a fear with Aronofsky and casting since it always seems to be well done.
There aren’t many filmmakers who are consistent in delivering projects that seem devoted to their own vision and love for the art. Darren Aronofsky absolutely loves cinema and it’s obvious in his homage to many of the great films that inspired his latest endeavor, Black Swan. His expression as a surrealist auteur, one that embraces the world of the imaginary alongside the grittiness of reality, is something that is truly rare with today’s filmmakers making him stand out as a true artist. While Black Swan unfortunately cannot be labeled original it is undeniably beautiful, dark, imaginative, and brilliant in many ways. The director’s style mixes incredibly well with his conceptual storytelling, which generates unique visuals, strong performances, and a cinematic experience that actually makes audience’s contemplate something about the human existence. Black Swan could be considered part two in a contemplation of ambition and death that compliments his last underrated film The Wrestler. Whatever the thematic influences might be for Aronofsky it is clear he has a talent for storytelling and atmospheric creation that is unlike any other filmmaker of his caliber.