Nina Meyers is a part of a New York City ballet company, casting a new star for the lead role in their production of Swan Lake. When Nina is given her chance, she struggles with the duality of her position; her innocent White Swan is near-perfect, but her seductive Black Swan lack the necessary passion, and her director Thomas is losing patience. But when Lily, a new recruit to the company with a dark side, begins to catch her attention, can she unlock her own darker side in order to pull off the Black Swan?
Darren Aronofsky has acquired a reputation of making beautiful looking films throughout his career, but it’s only in the last few years, specifically with The Wrestler, has his ability to create a strong and engaging narrative been recognised. Indeed, The Wrestler set a high bar for him to reach with his new film, Black Swan. So does he match it? CAN he match it? No. He surpasses it. Black Swan is, quite simply, a piece of art. The visuals are epic, the story is insane and the performances are fantastic. I was blown away.
The Wrestler was a rich story with heart and an exceptional lead performance by Mickey Rourke. Black Swan is a descent into madness with an equally exceptional lead performance by Natalie Portman, all scored by Clint Mansell. It’s easy to compare The Wrestler with Black Swan, stories about theatre and how the performance affects the character, but the comparison ends there. Whereas The Wrestler is a documentary-style story with heart that leaves you feeling with that warm, glowing feeling afterwards, Black Swan is a documentary-style story which takes a dark twist and just leaves you feeling stunned. Honestly, stunned. Is it a psychological thriller though? I dare say it’s more of a psychological horror, though you’ll have to take your own interpretation from this.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, the new Swan Queen, and it’s an unbelievable performance. She looks painfully thin, showing a lot of dedication for the role. On top of that, her ballet dancing is great. I’m no expert, and I’ve heard reactions of professional ballet dancers saying it’s sloppy, but through my amateur eyes? It was great. It was never going to be perfect, but then neither was Mickey Rourke’s wrestling – It was good enough to pull off the role. But besides that, Portman plays the role of someone slowly spiralling into madness with great aplomb. The ballet becomes secondary, taking a back seat to the study of this character as she begins to fall apart when her moment to shine arrives. Saying that, it’s also an excellent showing by Mila Kunis, playing Lily, her rival. Portman and Kunis play off of one another, emphasising the contrast between Portman’s repressed mummy’s girl and Kunis’s darker wild child. Vincent Cassel is an odd bit of casting as the director Thomas, but his role is less as the director and more of the sexy guy to flirt with Nina, and he does that well enough. Special mention to Winona Ryder for what is, surprisingly, a fantastic fleeting cameo as the replaced star of the ballet company, look out for her.
What makes this film great is Aronofsky. Whereas he starts off with a typical Aronofsky-esque story, he takes a left turn halfway through and introduces a certain amount of Hitchcock-ian psychological thriller with a dose of Argento-esque horror. It’s an intriguing mix, and it’ll keep you fixed and engrossed, or at least it kept me hooked. How he portrays Nina’s descent is masterful: It’s not just the hallucinations, it’s the little things. Things like switching Portman and Kunis’s roles for just the most fleeting of glimpses, things like the ongoing saga of Nina’s rash/scratching. It builds up nicely throughout, including a highly passionate (and well spoken of) lesbian sex scene, and keeps on building and building, leading to an intense finale that I haven’t seen the likes of since... The Wrestler.
I feel it only right to give you fair warning though: This film will not be for everyone. Experience tells me that a film like this will attract just as many haters as it will lovers, it is cinematic Marmite. A fair amount of viewers will not be attach themselves to this and just won’t get it. Some people will find it too odd or too slow or too different. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World suffered from the same problem. Sometimes, films can be a bit too visually unique for people and that’s totally understandable. Me? I love it when the boundaries are pushed, I love seeing experimentation and uniqueness. It’s what drew me to Scott Pilgrim, and it’s what’s drawn me to this.
Overall, it’s hard for me NOT to be glowing about this film. Yes, it’s a film about ballet, but it’s a ballet story in the same way The Wrestler was a film about wrestling; it’s more about the character and the study of. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s acted superbly, it’s been written brilliantly and it’s all directed astutely and sharply. Aronofsky doesn’t miss a beat; he may well be the new king of film psychology. Just think of this as The Wrestler as written by H.P. Lovecraft and directed by Stanley Kubrick and you’ll be somewhere near what this film achieves. That’s right, I just compared Aronofsky to Kubrick. THAT is how good this is. In fact, it’s so good, there’ll be no catchy line to finish, simply a word: Breathtaking.