Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is many things, including a dark and sexually charged drama, a cautionary tale, and even a horror film of sorts. It’s a study of madness in the guise of obsession, a look at an artist striving for perfection, and a tour de force performance by both the lead character and the lead actress. (Hell, it could even be an unofficial sequel to Mirrors 2.) But for all the beauty and brilliance on display as the film explores the idea of suffering for the sake of art, it fails to find a human heart at the center of the story. We’re dazzled and terrified, but much like beauty itself the effect is only skin deep.
We first meet Nina (Natalie Portman) as a fragile, obsessed, and possibly insane ballet dancer struggling to stand out in a company filled with equally talented and rail-thin ballerinas. The director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is planning to open the upcoming season with a stripped down, visceral adaptation of Swan Lake, and he has chosen Nina to star as The Swan Queen. Already suffering from hallucinations, an overbearing mother, and a body wounded by the demands of her art, this triumph pushes her quest for perfection even further. The Swan Queen requires a performer capable of portraying two halves; The White Swan is the embodiment of innocence and goodness while the Black Swan is both seductive and carefree. Nina has mastered the former traits, but the latter’s nature eludes her grasp. Her stress and fears grow with the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis) who epitomizes the darker half in both attitude and ability, and Nina feels compelled to transform herself in grotesque and unexpected ways to compete.
Odds are you’ve never experienced a film quite like this before. Aronofsky forces the viewer into Nina’s personal space with tightly framed shots and a camera that follows her moves from just over her shoulders. Every mirror becomes an opportunity for madness to seep out as subtle tricks and minor differences in reflection reveal themselves across the screen. We’re given stretches of dialogue-free closeups as footwear is crafted into usable condition and bodies are stretched into the same. Beauty has rarely been presented with such rigor and pain.
Crisp and deliberate sound design has the viewer hearing the whispered laughter haunting Nina as if it was aimed at our own insecurities, and the occasional flutter of wings steadily reminds us that something is trying to break free. The score by Clint Mansell matches the film’s drama and horror note for note, and flows flawlessly in and out of Tchaikovsky’s original music. It carries you into the darkness of Nina’s mind with no promise of return.
As exquisite and elaborate as the film’s construct is the character of Nina prevents it from being little more than an exercise in technique. Beautiful and fantastical technique to be sure, but still a presentation without a pulse. She begins the film as a timid and terrified chihuahua already tutu-deep in madness which gives the viewer no baseline to start from, no “normal” from which Nina falls. She’s neither monster nor victim but instead is simply a vehicle to which Aronofsky hitches his litany of obsessive and artistic terrors. She’s seeing her face on strangers around her, there are weird scratches on her shoulder blades, and she hallucinates as much as she actually sees. The line between reality and her own imagination is never clearly defined leaving the viewer with nothing and no one to hold onto throughout the film. And while there’s nothing wrong with flawed or unlikable lead characters, indeed they’re often the most challenging and rewarding, they need to have a degree of humanity and reliability. Nina has neither.
It’s a testament to Portman’s own dedication that she manages to make Nina, an otherwise one dimensional vessel, into a character worth watching. The actress trained for a year, lost excessive weight (from an already lithe frame), and experienced a small sampling of the pains and bruises that professionals expose themselves to on a daily basis. She’s convincing on the stage (at least to this outsider) and presents Nina as pitiful and paranoid in her dealings with herself and others. The bloody and hallucinogenic visuals complement the fearful uncertainty she wears in her constantly concerned eyes, and her attempted transition from frigid and antisocial to someone who freely pleasures herself in bed is borderline heartbreaking and the closest Nina gets to appearing truly human.
Supporting performances are equally strong with Cassel’s forceful and determined director providing most of the film’s humor. Barbara Hershey is effective and frightening as Nina’s mother, a woman who sees herself as part owner of her daughter’s success having been forced to give up her own dance “career” when she became pregnant. And while Kunis excels in comedies she finally proves herself capable of more dramatic roles after floundering in Max Payne and The Book Of Eli. She moves from friend to foe with ease and infuses Lily with a heady mix of the sensual and devious. Kunis’ greatest triumph is making Lily someone who can seduce with little more than a glance whether it be from across the room or from between Nina’s legs.
Make no mistake, this is a film that deserves to be seen and is quite possibly the best of Aronofsky’s career so far. It’s a brilliant mix of imagery and sound that paints a tangible picture of an artist’s desire and drive for perfection. You will feel every bone crack and halted breath, question every reflection and movement, and both appreciate and be disturbed by the lengths people go for their chosen art. But the connection and concern you feel for poor Nina will be tenuous at best and ultimately as fleeting as a hairstyle fad inspired by Flock of Seagulls.