I was interested to read in a recent interview with director Darren Aronofsky that his latest film the ballet thriller Black Swan originated as a companion piece to his 2008 hit The Wrestler. Indeed the films parallel each other in their focus on the intense physical and psychological pressures that weigh on their protagonists – both professional athletes – and capture the beauty and tragedy of the sacrifices performers must make for the sake of their craft. But where The Wrestler successfully towed the line between saccharine sentimentality and pathos Black Swan is a much darker more disturbing work that recalls the obsession and paranoia at the heart of the director’s first film Pi.
Set within the highly competitive and secluded world of a New York City ballet company Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina an emotionally fragile perfectionist who still lives with her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When the company’s director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to “retire” the company’s aging star (Winona Ryder) in order to find a new soloist for his upcoming production of Swan Lake Nina seems a shoe-in for the part of the timid and virginal White Swan. But in order to become the soloist Nina must also be able to play the dark seductive Black Swan – a role that seems better suited to the company’s newest member the free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis). Despite his misgivings Leroy gives Nina the role sensing within her an undercurrent of wildness carefully hidden beneath her cold timidity and technical skill; his sexual advances come seemingly as a matter of course.
As the night of the ballet’s opening draws nearer the pressures on Nina escalate. What begins as neuroses easily explained by a stressful job and a repressive mother soon blossoms into a much darker psychosis: she hallucinates seeing her face on other women indulges bloody fantasies of self-mutilation and grows increasingly paranoid that Lily recently assigned as her understudy is conspiring to take her part. Yet even as her fervent dreams begin to invade waking life Nina is dancing the Black Swan better and better.
Truly this is a director at the top of his craft: Aronofsky masterfully draws attention to the brute physicality of the ballet – straining limbs skipped meals torn ligaments and bloodied feet. The narrative is taut throughout framed in stark blacks and whites and propelled with a constant nervous energy by cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s tight cinéma vérité follow shots. The sound editing is similarly claustrophobic amplifying Nina’s every rasping breath or compulsive scratch of skin. And Portman is already generating Oscar buzz for her performance: possibly the best of her career.
Aronofsky strives for philosophical complexity with Black Swan a film that at its heart is about the sacrifices performers make to create great art – the dual processes of creation and destruction. Along the way it becomes one of the more psychologically disturbing horror films of the year – and it is on this point that critics will be divided. Black Swan is truly an incredible achievement: a beautifully shot highly entertaining mix of high and low art that is guaranteed to mesmerize audiences. But while many of the horror conventions that Aronofsky employs are good for a quick scare they often feel cheap and – for better or for worse – come at the expense of the film’s otherwise highbrow sensibility. Still by the time the film reaches its logical and tragic conclusion the auteur’s stunning cinematic experience and Portman’s virtuosic performance will undoubtedly move audiences.