“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.”
I’ve stated in the past my love for the obsessive, ambitious young protagonist. Whether it’s Whiplash, The Social Network, or even the much darker Black Swan, there’s a common thread of passion and desperation that gives these movies a daring sense of humanity. It’s no surprise that Darren Aronofsky takes a more cerebral, kinetic approach to this framework in one of the most visually engaging movies of the last decade.
Natalie Portman portrays Nina Sayers, a ballet performer in a prestigious New York dance company. When company director Thomas Lorey (Vincent Cassel) announces an upcoming production of Swan Lake, Nina aims to be cast as the White Swan. Her real challenge, however, is becoming the darker, more corrupt counterpart, the Black Swan. The company meanwhile welcomes another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who best embodies the traits of the Black Swan, creating tension between herself and Nina as a strange friendship develops between them.
There’s a lot at play in Black Swan, but I’m surprised how easily Aronofsky breaks apart the story and introduces its themes in a straight-forward manner. The movie has a reputation as a strange, psychological horror feature. There’s a case to be made for all of those labels, but I think a common misconception about Black Swan is that it’s confusing or simply abstract. It’s a film about a lot of things, but the majority of those things aren’t really up for debate. We see the breakdown of the obsessive artist, her corruption through sexuality, and the ruthless nature of a cutthroat culture where only the strongest rise to the top and nobody lasts long. It’s concise and highly effective.
The imagery is heavy-handed, but I think it works beautifully. Nina’s story undoubtedly parallels the Swan Lake opera, going so far that the end credits of the movie attribute each actor with their counterpart from the original opera. Portman is a perfect White Swan, pure and untainted at the start. Aronofsky does a great job in the ballet scenes of showing us Nina’s technical skill while also alluding to her greatest weakness as pointed out by Vincent Cassel’s character: a lack of passion. Kunis, on the other hand, delivers what I think is her strongest performance to date. She feels genuine, down-to-earth, and powerful in a sexual way. It’s a nuanced take on the “Black Swan” representation that isn’t necessarily malicious; it just feels more primal and compelling. The movie is also ripe with black/white imagery, (The color of Nina’s clothing holds meaning in every scene, if my interpretation is correct.) and there’s all kinds of visual details to look out for when you’re experiencing the movie.
I remember hearing some weird buzz about Black Swan when it came out years ago, but I can say with confidence that it’s a technical triumph. It sinks pretty far into its dark visuals and rarely hits the brakes on its tension which is probably why it isn’t the most accessible movie. Even so, I think Black Swan is remarkably rewatchable if you’re in the right mindset for it, and I it’s one of Aronofsky’s most exciting movies. It’s right up my alley, and I’d love to see more movies like it.
Films Left to Watch: 877