Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heintz, & John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey
Perfection: chased to the elegant stage by way of the not-so-elegant back rooms. That is the goal viewers watch Nina (Natalie Portman) hurt, bleed, and dance, dance, dance toward in Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinatory Black Swan.
Aronofsky, fast becoming one of American cinema’s brightest renegades and fiercest visionaries, has never been shy about making you feel his characters’ pain. By removing all distance between you and them by rapid cutting and frantic pacing, you feel a kinetic connection to their turmoil.
Unlike his other agonized athlete movie, The Wrestler, Nina’s struggle is largely internalized and projected onto the environment. Fans of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion will feel right at home as her paranoia is writ large on the big screen and she begins seeing her nightmare appear in the real world.
Natalie Portman has always had potential, and in Black Swan she leaves behind her tendency to overact, works very hard, and achieves by far the best performance of her career. Her tears, laughter, and insanity are shared with the audience because actress and director have fused so seamlessly. On the stage when she is playing the Black Swan in a new production of Swan Lake, she leans into the camera, her eyes orange and ablaze with maddening intensity. It is at this moment that her and Aronofsky set the film loose after ratcheting the tension for so long.
It is that tension, all that build-up with little to no release, that is the source of both Nina’s madness and this movie’s success. Aronofsky connects his film making to your body, but he is also a master of pacing. Black Swan plays out like both a dream and a nightmare. Nina’s war with herself is heightened by her lack of social skills, her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), and the easy-going new girl in town (Mila Kunis). However, when she wins the lead in Swan Lake she enters the bathroom stall she typically throws up in, and nearly collapses with joy.
The hard work turns out to only be beginning with the acquisition of that lead role, though. The director (Vincent Cassel) wants her to show him that she can play the part of the Black Swan and not just the perfectionism and technique required for the White Swan. To achieve her need for perfection, she’ll have to do more than just nail every move. She must let go of control, and dive into the murky, unexplored dark side that’s been boiling beneath her surface.
That side of her explodes, as does she. As she releases her dark passion, either sexually or through rage and dance, her skin surges with bumps, slowly transforming her into a swan. Not literally of course, but to achieve that goal in her mind she must become the role.
The duality of human nature, the endless fight between the light and the dark, is at the very core of this movie. There is no denying the deep power it has, casting a hypnotic spell with its beautifully dark visuals and the volcanic performance at its center. Aronofsky transcends the familiarity in the stories he tells by burying it in his unique vision propelled by endless cinematic influence. With Black Swan, we find him casting light on another troubled soul. That light, it turns out, also produces endless shadow.