Beautiful. Grueling. Passionate. Sensual. Disturbing. Horrifying. Triumphant. Those are some of the words that pass through my mind as I process Darren Aronofsky’s ballet mind trip BLACK SWAN
. And, perhaps, “overwrought” as well.
BLACK SWAN is a companion piece to Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER in a lot of ways. It’s very much a character study of a young, up and coming ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) who appears to be cracking under the pressures. And, like in THE WRESTLER, we see in graphic detail the hell she’s putting on her own body. The film’s primary colors are black and white, but the third main color is blood red. One of the first shots of the movie are of Portman’s bruised and bloody feet and the film never lets you forget the destruction she’s waging on her own body in the pursuit of her art. There are rashes and scratches on her body, apparently self-inflicted. And, as the pressures mount and her psyche starts to crack, the body horror takes on even more extravagant forms.
Natalie Portman is at the center of the whole film and it’s easily a career best performance. To start with, Portman has transformed herself into a credible ballerina through what must have been punishing work. The transformation is internal as well. Pushed by an overbearing former dancer mother (Barbara Hershey) it’s obvious that Nina has no life outside of her dancing. And while that has led to technical perfectionism, it’s left her at a loss to bring anything outside of craftsmanship to a role. Portman’s character initially is a model of innocence and fragility, but the role of the Black Swan calls for her to bring out her dark side and be seductive and passionate. The movie makes the distinction between technical perfection and emotional perfection and we get to vividly see Portman’s conflict as she tries to find the emotional life she’s lacking. Or, perhaps more accurately, has kept bottled up waiting to explode.
And the trigger for the eventual explosion is a rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). Like Portman, Kunis also delivers career best work here. Beyond the physical transformation, Kunis is Portman’s emotional opposite. Irresponsible, unrepressed, passionate, and apparently very happy. She’s a model to aspire to and a threat, all rolled up into one package. Aronofsky isn’t being particularly subtle with the character, she has black wings tattooed to her back and dresses in black compared to Portman’s white, but it’s a very effective performance. The mirrored opposite doesn’t stop just at casting, practically every scene has a mirror in it of some sort. Again, the film is many things, but subtle is not one of them.
But, subtle isn’t what Aronofsky is aiming for. He’s aiming for elevated melodrama with heart on the sleeve emotion and moments that sucker punch the audience. And he pulls out all the tricks he has to achieve those ends. Handheld camera work creates a jarring effect. Special effects are used judiciously to show Nina’s psyche collapsing. The soundtrack is filled with effects from inappropriate laughter to the sound of wings. There are abrupt, unsettling jump cuts. And Aronofsky lets it all come together in the finale where art and reality combine in a manner that’s clearly reminiscent of the 1948 ballet film classic THE RED SHOES. And if there are a few missteps prior, they’re mostly erased in the tour de force climax.