Plot: A ballet dancer wins the lead in "Swan Lake" and is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan, but slowly loses her mind as she becomes more and more like the evil twin sister of the White Swan, the Black Swan.
When Darren Aronofsky had left The Fountain behind him he was asked what was next on his agenda, he answered saying that he was working on a film about the relationship between a wrestler and a ballerina. We all know that this wasn't the case as his next Oscar nominated film focused entirely on an ageing wrestler and his relationship with a stripper. So what happened to the ballerina then? Well, here she is played beautifully by Natalie Portman in a career defining virtuoso performance.
Black Swan works very much as a companion piece to 2008's The Wrestler, much like the way Guillermo Del Toro's two films The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth relate to each other. The Wrestler is the male answer to the female energy of Black Swan; they are brother and sister and the similarities don't stop there. Obviously both films are set in the world of performing arts; where ballet is the highest order of performance wrestling is deemed the lowest of the low. Both professions have their athletes pushing their bodies to brutal extremes to impress and win over their audiences. Both Portman's Nina and Rourke's Randy are part of a circus of meat on show for everyone else's pleasure and both end up destroying their realities to gain recognition. Black Swan carries on the cinema verite approach to filmmaking that Aronofsky utilised with such amazing results on The Wrestler. This style probably has more to do with financial restraints but the final product cannot be argued with. Where the single camera approach added an intimate tone to Rourke's performance in The Wrestler, here it is intruding and sets the tone for the psychological menace yet to come.
This is where the comparisons come to an end; where The Wrestler was an intimate drama played with a surprisingly delicate hand from Aronofsky, Black Swan has much more in common with his more frantic and excessive early works and feels like the film he's been building up to all along.
The casting of Natalie Portman is the key to Black Swan's success. Portman as an actress is pristine and angel like, she is a woman turned thirty who has never really been allowed to be more than a girl in Hollywood. The character of Nina who we are intensely stuck to throughout the film must tap into her dark side in order to become both the white and black swan. Whereas she can dance the white swan effortlessly she does not have the power to let go and truly become brilliant in the dual role of the Swan Queen. Nina must transform from a girl into a women by unlocking her repressed sexual power, it is through the character of Lily (Mila Kunis) that Nina is able to do this. It is the transformation of Nina that the film rides on and Portman delivers a performance so convincing that it reminds you of what real immersive cinema is about; the use of the close-up is utilised over an over and it's underrated power shines through. The ability to be that close to a person's face and still feel comfortable with it is cinema's biggest weapon. In these close-ups Nina is childlike, she is fragile and innocent and often scared. When she is towards the end of her transformation into the Black Swan she becomes powerful, highly sexualised and dangerous.
Black Swan is very much Portman's film, the camera is never off her for more than a few seconds but the supporting cast is also perfect in every way. The relationship between Nina and her mother is played out with great care by Barbara Hershey as the creepiest mum since Carrie. We've seen the mother obsessed with her daughter's career in a bid to make up for their own failings time and time again and like so much in Black Swan it walks the fine line of cliche but ultimately transcends these components into something new. This is exactly what Black Swan does so well; it takes tired genre tricks and presents them in a fresh and exciting way delivering shock after shock.
Vincent Cassel commands the screen like a director should and succeeds in making his deviant and egocentric character instantly repulsive. Winona Ryder does her best with what limited screen time she has as former Swan Queen Beth who seems damaged by the role destined to take over Nina's life. Mila Kunis also excels as the smouldering and confident Lily who frees Nina from her repressed life, her character is minor but also the key to the film.
Black Swan is obsessed with duality, in the true gothic style the drama and the horror comes from the doppleganger. Every character has a double who they mirror in the present or will end up becoming in the future, the constant motif of mirrors throughout the film signifies this and makes for an uneasy viewing experience as we are never quite sure what's just been shown. Matthew Libatique's cinematography is stunning while ambiguous; shadows, reflections and faces blend and blur to throw us into Nina's paranoid delusions. Composer Clint Mansell who has scored all of Aronofsky's work to date also bravely re-imagines the timeless music of Swan Lake with audacious results that make the film feel like the collision of fairy tale and nightmare.
19th century ideals and earnings were portrayed by the Swan Queen in the story of Swan Lake, in Black Swan the story serves as a parable about womanhood and the 'dangers' of female sexuality. The film is shocking audacious and uncompromising in what it's willing to show and some suspension of disbelief might be needed in some of the films more fantastical scenes.
Black Swan is a career high of everyone involved and clearly the work of an auteur regarding director Darren Aronofsky. Like all his previous films Black Swan shows the frailty of the human condition and depicts a character obsessed with unrealistic goals, refusing to accept their psychical and mental limits.
Tchaitovsky's Swan Lake had many detractors on it's release but was eventually considered his masterpiece - could this also be the case with Aronofsky's provocative film? Or will it be embraced by the masses and instantly recognised? I'm guessing the latter as Black Swan manages to be both a film about the impossibility of perfection while ironically ending up perfect.