Director Darrern Aronofsky’s films all have a common theme; the quest for the unattainable. Whether it’s knowledge (Pi), escape (Requim for a Dream), immortality (The Fountain), or redemption (The Wrestler), his films showcase obsessive heroes and anti-heroes battling themselves and their environment to unlock secrets and discover new worlds. Often these quests end in tragic form, and the the secrets revealed destroy what the journey couldn’t. Black Swan, the latest from the award winning filmmaker, is no different. If anything, it may be the grand culmination of this theme before Aronofsky potentially departs from art house cinema for large blockbuster fare.
The film begins with a haunting prologue, a dream in which our protagonist, vetern ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), lives out a nightmarish version of one of ballet’s most celebrated works, Swan Lake. We follow Nina in a simplistic, stark manner, very much like the way Aronofsky followed Randy “The Ram” in The Wrestler. Nina lives a solitary life, sharing an apartment with her equally obsessive mother and dedicating herself solely to ballet. When the announcement is made that the company will be producing Swan Lake, Nina takes this as a sign and tries out for the lead role of the Swan Princess. It’s actually a duel role, with both a good and evil version, and predictably this is where things start to turn.
Nina has unhealthy compulsive control issues, like an apparent eating disorder, that she maintains and functions with. But things quickly become very dark as her precious control is threatened both by her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel), and her apparent rival Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who possess all of the carefree passion in life that Nina can never know. Though she lands the lead after a questionable interview, Nina is not living up to the role. As she struggles things close in around her with menacing results. Soon, she herself is undergoing a Kafkaesque metamorphosis and seemingly destroying everything around her. All in the name of her own unattainable goal: perfection.
This film actually works in many ways. On one level is a psychological suspense story, on another it’s a straight up horror flick. Aronofsky seems to channel a host of other influential masters throughout the film, and some scenes almost play out as homages to Hitchcock, Lynch, or Cronenberg. Heck, I’d even throw Miyazaki on that list. As events become more confused and chaotic in the film, Aronofsky handles it deftly, keeping us guessing but not confused. The stark handheld cinematography compliments Nina’s world of mirrored walls, whispered threats, and a growing disassociation from reality, and everything remains believable if increasingly improbable. All of the performances are spot on, especially Portman and Kunis, who’ve earned all of the praise they’re receiving. They and the film itself command your attention every second of the movie, never letting up or backing off.
Black Swan is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, but my viewing list is a little light. It’s not Aronofsky’s best yet or his masterwork or anything too grand, but it’s an achievement that, if nothing else, made ballet a lot more interesting. And that’s not easy.