In the four films in Darren Aronofskyâ€™s filmography that precede his latest Black Swan it has been nearly impossible to determine a consistent style. From the slowly paced, cerebral Pi to the frenetic and visceral Requiem for a Dream and the redemptive character study The Wrestler, Aronofsky has approached each new project with excellent storytelling ability and great imagination. In Black Swan there is some of the first evidence of a theme emerging for Aronofsky as we see the fast-paced visual style of Requiem for a Dream combined with the character depth of The Wrestler. The result is a film that has some of the best features of Aronofskyâ€™s previous works, but lacks much of the imagination.
Black Swan is a powerful story of obsession and it features a tour de force performance from its star Natalie Portman, but despite all of the psychological tension there is not much below the surface. Itâ€™s a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve and in its two-hour running time it visits just about every emotional extreme. The argument could be made that this is Aronofskyâ€™s first foray into the horror genre and itâ€™s obviously an unfamiliar territory for him as he often breaks from his visual style to borrow from other horror films. The acting from Portman brings the film to a deeper level, but overall the film emphasizes Aronofskyâ€™s weaknesses as much as it highlights his strengths.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is one of the oldest members of a struggling ballet company run by the conceited and cruel Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Like many theatre and dance companies before them, this company has chosen a populist piece in order to draw an audience back â€“ Tchaikovskyâ€™s â€œSwan Lakeâ€. Despite her uptightness, Leroy casts Nina as the Swan Queen and begins a psychologically demanding rehearsal schedule with the hopes of releasing Ninaâ€™s inner slut and making the Black Swan convincing.
Ninaâ€™s desire for perfection becomes an obsession that is further driven by her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) who treats her 20-something daughter like a young child. There is also the new dancer in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who becomes a quick favorite of Leroyâ€™s and fierce competition for Nina in her drive for absolute perfection. Ninaâ€™s obsession inspires paranoia and schizophrenic hallucinations as she spirals downward psychologically, upward professionally, and loses her perspective of what is real.
As ballet is a subject that not every filmgoer is fluent in, Aronofsky uses Leroy to speak to the audience and tell them what is constitutes good or bad dancing. Despite using a foot double for many scenes, Portman is remarkably convincing when she is performing the routines. The movie is not directly about the dancing, but the world of ballet is an appropriate setting for the story Aronofsky is attempting to tell because of the cutthroat competition among lifelong dancers. The dancers line up to pliÃ© and jetÃ© while all looking identical in appearance and movement. This unification allows for Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique to do some inventive framing that creates suspicion about which dancer is actually Nina. The camera follows Nina like a stalker in the night, bringing the paranoia into the audienceâ€™s perspective.
In one of the opening scenes when Leroy is informing the dancers that â€œSwan Lakeâ€ is his choice for their next production he defends it by saying: â€œDone to death I know, but not like this. Weâ€™re going to strip it down, make it visceral and real.â€ This is Aronofskyâ€™s way of saying that obsession movies like Black Swan may have been done before, but not in the intense and visceral way that he intends to present it. Unfortunately the promise turns out to be all talk as the film ends up feeling a lot like other horror movies and therefore feels predictable. Every time Nina slowly backs out of a room with dramatic music playing we know she is going to bump into somebody. Once the hallucinations are established it becomes obvious what is in the head and what is real and it feels less imaginative than Aronofskyâ€™s other films.
The screenplay for Black Swan comes from newcomer writing team of John McLaughlin, Andres Heinz, and Mark Heyman who combined only have one previous feature film writing credit (2005 disaster Man of the House). They seem to have a good grasp on the material, but weaknesses come through in their dialogue writing. Powerful acting and careful directing are able to diminish that weakness, but minor characters like Winona Ryderâ€™s Beth are reduced to catch-phrase spouting cartoons.
The strongest performance undoubtedly comes from Portman who gets bonus points for degree of difficulty. The level of emotional extremes she needs to achieve are drastic and she manages to use her body in remarkable ways to bring that emotion to the audience. While the camera explores her entire body, it is actually her eyes that prove to be her most powerful tool with an incredible sense of doubt in everything she sees. Mila Kunis also shines as Ninaâ€™s foil bringing sexuality and seduction into every frame while simultaneous maintaining a sense of kindness.
Bottom Line: Black Swan is less imaginative than Aronofskyâ€™s other films, but its lead performance makes it a venture that should be seen with reservations.