A spotlight descends upon the figure of a young woman. She is wearing a sparkling white dress and, as she begins to dance, is joined by a male dressed entirely in black. The camera swiftly follows as the two weave in and out of each others' movements and the male transforms into a crow like figure. The girl desperately tries to flee the presence of the creature but is overcome. As white feathers fall to the ground around her the girl flutters her arms in a newly revealed swan costume. And so, Black Swan begins.
Darren Aronofsky // 2010 // 15 // 108 mins
The girl is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a full time dancer at a New York ballet company. She lives at home with her protective mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself, and trains consistently. This film is the story of Nina's rise to the lead role of the Swan Queen in her company's revised production of Swan Lake, and her fall into a madness created by the pressures placed upon her by herself and the people surrounding her. While Nina is considered perfect casting for Odette, the innocent and fragile White Swan, she must discover a way in which to channel the unrestrained and seductive nature of Odile, the Black Swan, if she is to earn the title role. What unravels is an extremely intimate study of obsession, paranoia and the strive for perfection.
Darren Aronofsky masterfully constructs this story, his now self-assured direction never faltering as he takes the viewer deep into a world they have likely never seen this closely before. His depiction of the highly competitive and excruciatingly physical life of a dancer is entirely believable and all the while intriguing. What Aronofsky has so cleverly achieved here is the perfect blend of awe-inducing talent and displays of technical perfection, with the shudder inducing impact of this rigorous lifestyle on Nina's body. The film features numerous body-horror sequences that could rival even the goriest torture-porn instalment, with cracking bones and peeling skin only touching the surface of what is seen throughout the course of the runtime. Similarly the way in which he handles the characters mental decline is simplistic and perfectly dark, his fly-on-the-wall filming style helping to draw the viewer into the subjective world of Nina's unreliable narrator.
The film boasts a supporting cast of actors that each bring incredible performances. Vincent Cassel inhabits his slimy company director Thomas, his aggressive and hyper-sexualised approach to both the performance and his cast providing the perfect challenge for Nina's reclusive personality. Cassel possesses enough charm to win over the viewer during his rare moments of care and kindness, while always retaining an ambiguity throughout the film. As Nina's overbearing mother and faded star, Barbara Hershey shines, like so many of the films performances the unclear nature of her actions allow for a level of viewer interpretation not seen often enough in film. Rising star Mila Kunis also proves her worth as tattooed wild-card and yang to Nina's yin, as fellow competitor for the top spot Lily, while Winona Ryder brilliantly captures the tragedy and anguish of replaced and retiring starlet Beth.
Through her role as Nina, Natalie Portman displays a level of skill rarely seen in her other works. The actress presents the most brilliantly crafted performance of her career, in what is undeniably a star vehicle for her talent. She creates a character that viewers will willingly follow in spite of questionable actions and episodes of clear mental instability and is all the while engaging and sympathetic. Arguments about the legitimacy of her dancing within the film aside, Portman displays even clearer a stunning dedication to her role and a fearlessness that allows her to truly shine. Nina is loveable, captivating, infuriating and a mystery, and Portman dominates every inch of screen time she is given as her with an effortless presence.
The costume design is simple; have Nina wear white and pink while everyone else is in blacks and greys, with Nina's outfits progressively darkening as she transforms into the black swan, and through its simplicity it is flawless. Within the constraints of a relatively low budget the visual effects are suitably impressive, as reflections move of their own accord and numerous figures receive face transplants to resemble the paranoid protagonist. Each dance sequence is stunningly realised and the fluid camera movements help evoke the sense of movement and passion that could have been lost through the performances transition to screen. Subtly navigating the story and bringing each of these elements together is a haunting score, composed by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell, which revitalises the familiar music of the ballet itself.
The dancing is exquisite, the performances are enthralling and the direction is flawless. Black Swan refuses to provide any form of resolution and is highly interpretive right until the end but it is also an exhilarating and constantly surprising film which feels like nothing seen before. The success of a film which so heavily distorts what is real and what is not very much depends on whether the viewer can believe in the characters, Aronofsky and his cast undoubtedly achieve this, grounding these characters in an unfamiliar yet somehow relatable world. What has been created here is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece.