The landscape of cinema is full of monsters – those human, and otherwise. Many of these monsters, as we’ve seen over the years, begin as something like us and are changed somehow, transforming into a creature that is equally interesting and terrifying. This is the crux of great monster stories – we can’t look, yet we cannot take our eyes away. In his completely fresh monster story Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky shows us a transformation for the ages – one that combines the grace and beauty of ballet with the exhilaration and terror of the classic monster tale. Visually stunning, violent and at times breath stealing, Black Swan gives us the great cinematic monster that we never saw coming: Natalie Portman in a pink tutu.
Just remember to breathe.
Nina Sayers (Portman) has just earned the role of a lifetime, that of the Swan Queen in a high profile retelling of Swan Lake, as seen through the eyes of a madman director (Vincent Cassel). But even though she’s the queen, she is far from ready to wear the crown. To be a great Swan Queen, she must master both the virginal and innocent White Swan (a role she slips into with ease), and the raw, seductive Black Swan (a side of herself that she is yet to discover). Standing in her way is years of smothering from an over-protective and equally deranged mother (played by Barbara Hershey) and a competitive new addition to the company, wild-child Lily (Mila Kunis). She quickly realizes that the path to perfection is not a quiet, beautiful tale, but one of brutality in a world where the line between reality and delusion is easily blurred.
As he did so effortlessly with The Wrestler, director Aronofsky is a master of balance as he sets upon his journey toward delivering a familiar story in an interesting way. Like the ballad of Swan Lake – which tells of a swan princess who is cast under the spell of an evil wizard, losing the love of her prince to her twin sister the black swan, only to find salvation in hurling herself off of a mountain – Black Swan enters quietly with the elegance and grace of Natalie Portman’s Nina on stage. It moves along relishing in said quiet, focusing on intimate moments all tense in their own right. We are at the side of her bed when Nina wakes for early rehearsal. We feel the popping of her joints as she stretches, illustrating the physically demanding and brutal nature of the ritual. The sound design, the camera’s tightness – it’s all meticulously executed to build in our minds the very physical nature of ballet. It’s a physical nature that will be used later to brutally test our will – Aronofsky is setting us up for the crescendo an hour in advance.
The moments in between are carried by the performances of his brilliant cast. Natalie Portman is innocent in the beginning, holding Nina’s deranged psyche just underneath the surface until every ounce of emotion comes bursting out of her (decidedly more lithe) frame. Mila Kunis is in perfect counterpart as Lily, the disruptive, raw and sexual presence that is ubiquitous, but not overplayed. Kunis is super cool next to the tightly-wound Portman, a perfectly devious rival. But she’s not the only antagonist in this story. Vincent Cassel is excellent as the oppressive and cunning director, always there to push Nina along toward the brink of self-destruction if it means that he’ll get both sides of the Swan Queen for his show. But most effective of all is Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother. In a world of unexpected twists and mirrors that spring to life, the well-rounded psychotic nature of her character may be Swan’s most terrifying treat. You’ll never think of clipping your nails the same way again.
It’s the performances around Portman that drive Nina to madness, that’s for certain. But what drives us, the audience, to the inevitable madness to be experienced in the thrilling final act – one that will undoubtedly take your breath away. How about Matthew Libatique’s camera, which hangs over Nina’s shoulder as she bolts from one side of the stage to the other? We’re always right there with her, feeling the intensity at the center of the storm. Or perhaps it’s Clint Mansell’s score? He gives Swan Lake some juice and, just as Aronofsky raises the hammer for the third act, cranks up the energy at just the right moment. It might just be the film’s 300-plus sfx shots, all subtly applied to a very natural landscape to deliver spine-tingling surrealism. All of this makes for a uniquely grand theatrical experience. It demands to be seen on a giant screen, with speakers turned up just a little too loud. A rare, non-3D film without a mass of explosions that can be so easily pegged as an experience you shouldn’t have in your living room.
Again, it’s about balance. Libatique’s cinematography is clean and graceful, but it finds the grittiness of 16mm and the unbridled speed of the ballet when it needs it. Mansell’s score is beautiful and elegant, but ferocious when we need it to be. Aronofsky’s tale, like that of the director’s play, is nothing more than another take – but it’s executed with such relentless brutality that it feels new. He breaks bones, erodes reality, and viciously confronts us with sexuality and surreal moments that crawl up our collective spines with manners both meticulous and reckless. Mastering the quiet and the violent, Aronofsky may have given us his own version of perfection. At the very least, he’s given us a new monster – a werewolf story for a refined audience. In which a 90-pound ballerina stops the very beats of our hearts not just with the beauty of her moves, but with the brutality of her tale.
The Upside: Performance, craftsmanship and a third act that will knock you on your ass leave Black Swan as a clear Best Picture contender.
The Downside: While the familiarity of the story may bother some, it’s the execution that matters.
On the Side: The budget on this film was so tight that when star Natalie Portman had a rib dislocated during a lift and she called the producer for help. She was told that the budget was so low they had no medic. She stated that if they needed to cut items from the budget they could take away her trailer instead of the medic. The next day her trailer was gone.