In what it is easily one of the most anticipated and most talked about films of the year, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has picked up some serious buzz as it travelled the festival circuit opening Venice and featuring in Toronto and London. It is most likely that of all the films that played in those prestigious festivals, Black Swan was the one that most divided the audience. Bold, audacious and certainly audience splitting. Like most of Aronofsky’s work, you will either love it or hate it, and I think that’s the intention to produce and adverse reaction you either embrace or reject.
The story of the film follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina for a prestigious New York ballet company where she is made the prima ballerina by the leader of the troupe Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) for the upcoming performance of Swan Lake. This comes much to the delight of her very pushy, overbearing mother, former ballerina Erica (Barbara Hershey).
While Nina successfully embodies the innocent, delicate spirit of the White Swan she struggles with the opposite persona of the Black Swan, a more dark and sexual being. As a result she is pushed into competition with Lily, a new dancer, who has the ability to capture the darker side of the ballet. In order to retain her status as the prima ballerina, Nina begins to explore her darker side which leads to some dark and strange places.
I loved it. I love the ideas of it. I love the audacity of it. I love the genre busting nature of it. I love the fact that it takes no prisoners. I love the performances. I love the grainy, 16 mm visuals. But the best thing about it is, I loved it despite the fact its a film heavily dependent on ballet. However, the film isn’t really about ballet, it is more about obsessive perfectionism and how art can exceed the grasp of the artist. Also it is about the grimy, dark side to high art. Aronofsky in the press tour said that the film is comparable to The Wrestler, in that both films are about two people who promote their flesh, physically push themselves and enhance their performance for the entertainment of a mass audience. The only difference is that ballet is held in higher regard than wrestling.
To me Darren Aronofsky gets better and better, initially before The Wrestler all of his films showed a self indulgence in the direction and over selling every element of the frame. I remember watching Requiem for a Dream and admired the technical construction but it felt like my head was being raped with the sheer amount of cuts and stuff happening on screen. His direction was always far too obvious. Good for him then that Black Swan is superbly directed.
This is a man who knows exactly what he wants and knows precisely what he intends to do with the material. Never in the film did I think that what I was watching was a film out of control from a directional stand point. Even though there are elements which push the boundaries of credibility and the level of hysteria in the final movement is cranked up beyond belief, I still felt Aronofsky was masterfully puppeteering those moments. His control of the material is masterful and the more shocking, hallucinatory moments display extreme confidence, he’s a director who knows where he wants to take a story (even though you may not like it) and is never afraid to show us repulsive and often jarring images.
Adding to the film’s gravitas are the superb performances from the lead actors. Natalie Portman is absolutely spellbinding as Nina, it an incredibly raw and gutsy display of her talent. It is a role we haven’t seen from her before, it is so multi-layered and she makes a lot of clear hard work look effortless. It is a role which needed to be taken on by a fearless actress and one who can show vulnerability as well as power, to be honest I initially didn’t think Portman had it in her but alas I was proven very wrong. Her role as Nina Sayers is one that could very well see her taking to the Oscar stage.
The supporting performances are terrific too. Vincent Cassel is particularly slimy as the leader and trainer of the ballet troupe, Leroy. Cassel is ever watchable on screen and his command of the frame is a delight for this film, he is charismatic and charming but dangerously manipulative. As professional rival to Nina, Mila Kunis’ Lily shows very assured control of a very sensual and aggressive character. Kunis is a relative newcomer and young rising star, she has a hell of a career.
The most talked about performance outside of Portman’s, and perhaps the finest of that in the film, is Winona Ryder’s pitch perfect role as Beth MacIntyre. MacIntyre is the ballerina that has been replaced by Nina and while she only has a very small amount of screen time her presence in these precious minutes is electric. Ryder embodies both bitterness and jealousy, giving so much to a role that needed more screen time, in fact had she been the rival instead of Kunis the film may have been stronger.
The film has caused a storm of debate already even after just one week of release. To be honest it’s understandable after viewing the film, its mashes together so many genres that its hard to truly get down to the nitty gritty of the film. Never before, and never again, will I see a film that refers very clearly to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and David Cronenberg’s The Fly within minutes of each other. Many claim it is outrageous to the point of silliness and others say it is a work of genius.
I am in the latter camp, it works beautifully. Of course its not guaranteed you are going to love it and you will react differently than everybody else. It’s deeply affecting and thought provoking, even days after seeing it images and scenes still roll around my head. It is powerful and jaw dropping but never less than brilliant.
Wonderful performances and assured and audacious direction make for one of the best films of the year. Aronofsky is never afraid to take risks with the story and his unflinching direction turns out to be one of the film's greatest assets.