Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) needs a passionate and beguiling ballerina to play the lead in his newest Swan Lake adaptation. His former “Little Princess” is out of the running and some new blood is needed. Enter Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) whose virginal qualities make her a perfect fit for the fragile White Swan. However the production demands that the White Swan also become the troubled Black Swan and Nina has a problem embracing (or releasing) that part of herself. She is required by Thomas to exhibit a lack of control that is at odds with her upbringing and is forced to make a decision that will have consequences not only for her but for those individuals that get caught up the maelstrom that surrounds her. To complicate matters further the rivalry that such a prime position invariably brings is not so black and white itself.
Nina is a difficult protagonist to identify with; if we look at her objectively we see an introverted two dimensional cliché so from the very beginning we are required to either accept this as a plot device or paint everything that follows with the same brush strokes. I chose to accept it because I had faith in Aronofsky’s ability to give with one hand and subversively turn things around with the other without warning. Having said that and after letting the film do its work, Natalie Portman, looking every bit the ballerina, gives what I think is her best ever performance. She is perfect for the role of Nina and even if, like me, you’ve never really been impressed with her career choices since playing the young Mathilda in Luc Besson’s Leon (1994) there is much to admire in her presentation here. I’m no ballet aficionado and a professional may well disagree but I felt her dancing was extremely convincing and I didn’t doubt for a second that she could do the same off camera if asked. Careful editing undoubtedly helped sustain the momentum but I can’t fault her vivacity. The dance characterises her more than her actions elsewhere. It’s only while dancing that she transcends the two dimensional.
The director manages to blend the cinéma vérité style that won him recognition in The Wrestler (2008) with the chaotic and unsettling imagery he freaked us all out with in Requiem for a Dream (2000), and he does it almost perfectly. I say almost, as the pacing is a little awkward at times, particularly in the first third of the film. It seems as if he is purposefully holding something back, or is he giving us just enough hints that something is awry? That’s for the individual to decide. Either way, this duality beautifully mirrors the text and the subtext of the film.
Aronofsky has a breathtaking ability to place his camera on a subject and have them become the centre of a crippling duality. In the aforementioned The Wrestler we spent a great deal of time behind Mickey Rourke’s character, following passively as he drifted from place to place. Similarly in Black Swan we follow Nina from a vantage point, closer than with Rourke, placed just behind her shoulder, she fills the frame and the world around her blurs into insignificance.
Then the camera will abruptly shift its point of view and through precise timing this flipped perspective puts the subject at odds with their surroundings, lost in a sea of increasing dementia and unease. Nina again fills the frame but the advantageous position she had in her own private view of the world is now fractured. It’s a wonderful technique that he relies on a little too often; nevertheless it has the desired effect on the viewer and along with his quick edit has become his signature move. Look back through Aronofsky’s career and you will see it time and again.
The director uses space masterfully. The tightly controlled home life which Nina shares with her overbearing mother is claustrophobic and the camera is given less freedom to explore whereas the open stage, a microcosm of the real world and for Nina the only one that really matters, is free and fluid and the camera flies elegantly around the energetic dance as effortlessly as if it were carried on the breeze of Nina’s pirouette. We rarely see the audience or even care if they are enjoying the performance but they may as well not be there anyhow, Nina is the centre of her own universe in those times and that universe is spiralling out of control.
Take a moment to applaud the camera operator during those scenes as he/she does an outstanding job. Praise should also be heaped on Mila Kunis who gives a fine performance as a colleague of Nina, and the multilingual Vincent Cassel who never fails to impress whatever the role demands of him.
Aronofsky achieved auteur status long before Black Swan but he’s neither too arrogant nor ashamed to openly reference his influences. He is channelling not just the obvious influences (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) but look a little deeper beneath the fractured surface and there is a lot of Polanski onscreen, or rather, at the edges of the screen, in the dark corners, behind the dressing room doors and in the mirrors that seem to be everywhere.
Music is again by Clint Mansell (their fifth collaboration) and is deceptively complex. His reworking of Tchaikovsky's original composition locks with the visuals beautifully not only during the ballet scenes where it conveys an urgency and grace simultaneously but off-stage when an ominous and portentous sensation is requisite. Aside from the famous “Swan Theme” I’m not familiar with Tchaikovsky's composition so I was mostly unable to tell if the original had been changed by Mansell or built upon or simply played differently but for me that wasn’t essential, it was the feelings conveyed and the gravitas they lent the scene and those qualities were abundant. Parts of it would not be out of place in an Argento horror film.
Another essential Aronofsky film. Seek it out and engage with its duplicitous beauty. Or be left cold from the onset and wonder what all the fuss is about. View the trailer here.
For me, it’s a ...
**** out of 5
For further interest see Cuckoo77's review of Black Swan's score via this link.