Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Darren Aronofsky’s latest work is perhaps the ultimate mediation on the art/act of performance.
The tale of the female ballet dancer and her strive for perfection is detailed here in a manner unlike any other seen upon the big screen, with the metaphorical “journey into hell” that the protagonist takes; a frenzied and visceral portrayal of an industry rarely exposed to the outside from within its notoriously cliquey confines.
Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina who is a rising star in the New York City Ballet. Nina is an only child, her protective mother (Barbara Hershey) bordering on mentally unstable, which in turn has placed a strong-headed desire within Nina to succeed professionally. A rivalry develops between her and Lily (Mila Kunis), a recent arrival to the group, and one whose ambition equals that of Nina’s own. As Nina’s obsession verges ever closer to destructive, the relationship between the two girls collides.
Structurally the story unfolds like a fairytale, echoing and spun from the Swan Lake ballet itself (though not technically an adaptation according to the director). That each of the characters are listed alongside their Swan Lake equivalents in the closing credits acts as a punch line, confirming suspicions of similarities between Aronofsky’s film and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet.
Following in the footsteps of a cinematic tradition concerned with the deconstruction of identity, Black Swan recalls John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Duality and parallelisms run throughout the works, in a tale to which the often-told meme of “All Might Not Be As It Seems” could not apply more fittingly. Perfection and the strive toward it is one of the over-arching thesis befitting Nina’s story, itself reflected in the manner in which the protagonist of the film is effectively the replacement of another (her predecessor Beth MacIntyre, portrayed by Winona Ryder), fully aware that she too is susceptible to the same kind of treatment. The concept of transposition and succession plays a major part here. Succession, being a derivative of “success”, attaches it to the core emotional strand of Black Swan, tying together the intricate and many subtexts.
As mediation on the art of the method, Black Swan can be read as a heavy critique of that particular process. Having stated that he is no fan of the practice when it comes to his own working relationship with actors, Darren Aronofsky explores the lengths to which one might immerse them self in order to succeed.
The ballet world might be the perfect analogy for the relationship between actor and director. The fact that ballet is a performance art most heavily associated with the feminine, yet is generally portrayed on film to be male dominated, and one that is headed and controlled from behind the scenes as opposed to on the stage, could be read as an extended metaphor commenting on the film industry itself, and the ambition of those involved in front of the cameras.
Ballet has had an unusual relationship with movies. The definitive portrayal of that particular industry, Michael Powell and Emmeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is one steeped in a sense of heightened reality and straightforward fantasy. Black Swan too does not profess to represent the occupation in any kind of realistic manner. Moreover the traditional lack of a historical crossover between ballet and that of the film industry reflects the closed off, tight knit nature of the world.
The term “role of a lifetime” is thrown around often but Portman’s turn as Nina is undeniably such a part. Nina follows in the tradition of her more remarkable appearances (and debut) in Luc Besson’s Leon, and Michael Mann’s Heat than it does her more recent work.
Nina’s on-screen mirror, her rival Lily, saw Mila Kunis pick up the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival last year, and is a diversion of sorts for the actress. Her first foray into the “serious” side of cinema, Kunis excels as the bitchy antagonist, her mere existence threatening and contradicting Nina’s every move. The one major male role within the film comes from Gallic actor Vincent Cassel, with his performance as Thomas, the director of the New York City Ballet at the heart of the film. One of the issues levelled at the characterisation of Black Swan is in its slightness, with each character effectively little more than a vessel for a specific trait. While this might be true, it is befitting of the film – appropriate considering the nature of the source material and the incredibly structured form of characterisation within ballet.
Black Swan is one of the more successful marriages of costume and fashion designer, in this case with previous Aronofsky collaborator Amy Wescott and relatively recent (2005) house Rodarte, founded and run by sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy. Rodarte reflect rather than instigate Black Swan’s themes. The film is not subtle and neither are the costumes, its story ground in an identifiable reality and then contorted with artistic intent to disintegrate character. Wescott proffers a kind of symbolism for beginners, certainly in strict differentiation of colour, as Lily’s dark colour palette contrasts with Nina’s soft pinks and whites. Thomas stands resolutely in the middle in grey; less a mediator, more the face of cool moral ambiguity.
Within Aranofsky’s oeuvre, Black Swan sits closest not to its designated counter piece The Wrestler, but to Aronofsky’s directorial debut, Pi. There is a wonderful sense of kismet in the relationship between The Wrestler and Black Swan, especially apt considering the binary-drawn nature of the latter, with both films focusing upon very specific acts, each residing at polar opposites of the performing arts spectrum. But it is in the portrayal of events that Black Swan most closely resembles Pi. The central protagonists of both pieces, focussed upon their particular destinies, struggle to come to terms with exactly what it is that they have to fulfil. Both films feature the familiar on-screen backdrop of New York too; the underground railways of the city acting as a maze in which both protagonists become engaged with their situations.
The influence of the work of David Cronenberg can be seen clearly throughout Black Swan, with Aronofsky’s appreciation of body horror wholly apparent in the gruelling treatment suffered by Nina. The brutality portrayed, largely in close-ups that see the entire screen overtaken by very specific acts of pain draw a similar reaction to the curious treatment of the human form afforded by Cronenberg throughout his work.
The implausibly perfect conceit projected by perfectly constructed creation appropriately conveys the core thesis of Black Swan – the strain for perfection. As the chaos builds, and the world around Nina falls apart, so does the film itself. The soundtrack, Clint Mansell’s note-perfect reworking of Tchaikovsky’s score to Swan Lake, is skewed, with the sound of popping and crashing infiltrating the overture, and the visual tone shifts into one of maddening, brutal affray; the film quite literally infected by scratches and damage.
A ferocious work from a filmmaker at the height of his game. An incredibly satisfying piece of cinema.
Black Swan opens in the UK on 21st January.
By Adam Batty
Adam Batty is founder and editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second.
© 2011 – 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.