Rudie Reviews Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan [Theatrical Review]

Much of what we see in art or performance art is the expression of one’s soul. But in such a display, to make it look effortless is part of the charm and exhilaration. Behind this ease are countless hours spent perfecting every piece, movement and nuance to this art form. This is why it looks so easy. This obsession with perfection is something every artist struggles with, whether or not they achieve it is another story. When something comes easy to someone, it’s called talent and when talent comes easy to the talented, it’s called genius. In Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, “Black Swan”, is the latter. From the opening shot of this film, we get just a glimpse into the beauty, elegance and horror of the competitive world of a New York City Ballet Company.

“Black Swan” is the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), an ambitious young ballerina in a New York City company. She is eager to get the lead role of the swan queen in her company’s season opening performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina’s dancing style and personality is exact, pointed and reveals a certain innocence and vulnerability which makes her perfect for one half of this role, the white swan. What Nina struggles with is the twin role of the swan queen, the black swan. Flirtatious, seductive and strong; Nina’s dancing style and personality does not attribute these qualities as her rather sleazy director, Tomas (Vincent Cassell) keeps pointing out and continues to motivate her into being. In contrast, Nina’s direct rival, Lily (Mila Kunis) would be perfect for the black swan and tries to usurp Nina at every pass. 

After long hours of practicing and obsessing with the role, Nina’s mind and body begins to take a graphic toll on her. Overworked and exhausted, she begins to have visions of a mysterious doppelgänger following her as her body transitions from pointed and beautiful to horrific and freakish. Is Nina starting to go crazy or is this role too much for her? As much pressure Nina puts on herself, her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) passive aggressively taunts Nina with notions of perfection and her own failed career as a ballerina.

“Black Swan” is a haunting vision of obsession and how the desire of perfection can lead to one’s undoing. Darren Aronofsky seems to gravitate to film projects with entirely too human protagonist with a desire to make their dreams come true at almost any cost. Whether that be Max’s madness with understanding the numerical sequence in “Pi”, to Harry and Sara Goldfarb’s craving for a happier life through disillusion and drugs in “Requiem For A Dream” or Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s hunger for his past glory and his daughter’s love in “The Wrestler”. The themes are consistent with Darren Aronofsky, which makes him an extremely exciting auteur filmmaker working today.

Wonderfully shot by longtime collaborator, Matthew Libatique, the camera work is just as effortless as Nina’s dancing. The camera is always following her creating this focus driven world that Nina creates and adds a bit a suspense, which speaks highly of its subjects. The consistent motif of mirrors and mirror images reflects the mysteriousness of the film itself and Nina’s doppelgänger and creates an astounding mise en scène. It appears to be a glimpse into this strange world of competitive ballet. The dance sequences are absolutely mesmerizing, complete with this ‘behind the scenes’ feel that most wouldn’t be privied to and adds to the pure shock of what happens behind closed doors and after hours.

At the very least, “Black Swan” is a platform for the beautiful Natalie Portman. Her performance as Nina Sayers will garner well deserved awards during this award’s season. As Nina, Natalie Portman exudes tragedy, sorrow and beauty. There is a certain grace that comes along with Portman, which makes her performance exquisite. Achieving what most actors cannot deliver is the transcendence of fiction into emotional truth. This is the very definition of art. This is illustrated with every piece of Portman’s performance. It is written clearly on her face, in her movements and in her eyes. This is where the nuance and her motivation lays, a performance so subtle that if you don’t pay attention, you could miss it. And when it needs to be broad, it’s huge and when it needs to be subtle, it’s small. Natalie Portman is absolutely beautiful as Nina pirouettes and prances across the screen and in the memories of her audience. She is lost in these wonderful movements as she seduces us.

Darren Aronofsky does something very interesting with tone. Not as much as a drama about ballerina rivals, more clearly deep in the realm of horror. Complete with well-used jump scares, horrific body manipulation and ‘watch behind your fingers’ moments from the likes of David Cronenberg, John Carpenter or Dario Argento. But to infuse these horror tropes with tones of something that is entirely lyrically beautiful is achieved with such brilliance; it appears to be so effortless that from the likes of Terrence Malick, Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick. At times, Darren Aronofsky appears to borrow from Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. Both films have like elements and a desire for perfection, all done with a certain pedigree. Even their protagonist are linked by name (Mima and Nina) and profession (pop star and ballerina). Darren Aronofsky has created something beautiful and awe inspiring.

This is clearly one of the best film of 2010 and is an extremely strong effort from Darren Aronofsky. This is a great film to close out 2010, of what can be considered almost a disappointing year in movies. But with other such strong efforts from filmmakers like David Fincher, Edgar Wright and Christopher Nolan; going through the muck and muddiness of 2010 almost makes it worth it. Since Aronofsky’s first film in 1998, “Pi”, he has been striving for such perfection, nuance and pathos. I can easily say that “Black Swan” is a work of genius; this is Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece. Matching the tones and sentiment of our protagonist and a world and tension that crescendos to a magnificent finale. This is a must see! “Black Swan” mirrors everything in Nina’s ideal final line of the film, ‘it was perfect’. 

Grade: A+

Rudie Obias