Whether it is with drug addicts spiralling out of control in Requiem for a Dream or a meditating astronaut shooting across space in a bubble in The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky has never been a subtle director. In his latest effort, Black Swan, Aronofsky continues this trend, and fortunately it works perfectly. As the story focusses on a ballerina and the performance of Swan Lake, the melodramatic cues in this film lend themselves to the ballet-like story.
The film focusses on Nina, an aging ballerina played by Natalie Portman, as she finally gets a leading role in her ballet company’s new performance of Swan Lake. It is never made clear how old she is exactly, however it is obvious she is in her mid-twenties and that for a ballerina it is near the end of the line. As pressure to perform mounts both from her overbearing mother as well as her intense instructor, she begins to lose control.
Mirroring the storytelling technique used in The Red Shoes, Black Swan‘s story partially mirrors the ballet that our main character is part of. This not only creates some spectacular imagery but allows Aronofsky to present the story in a very melodramatic way. People will often dismiss melodrama as it is so often used inappropriately; however in Black Swan it is just right for the material.
While the film is hard to place in one genre, just as The Shining would be a horror film, so too would Black Swan. Unlike most horror films which feature an unexplainable killer, the horrific aspect is what extreme pressure and sexual frustration can do to one’s mind. And while this aspect of the film certainly makes it hard to place as a horror film, it is also what places it alongside other great horror films.
As much as I would like to discuss the themes and story of Black Swan further, the acting as well as the technical aspects behind the film are too important to the film to ignore. Considering that nearly each actor in this film gives an equally note-worthy performance it is hard to single out just one, however Natalie Portman’s performance as the virginal Nina is one I will not forget.
Portman is at once extremely innocent and also disturbingly on edge. Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s obsessive mother who is living her life’s dreams through Nina. One brilliant piece of casting is that of Winona Ryder who plays a ballerina who is forced into retirement. While not a major role, it is certainly an important one as Nina sees her as her future, and Ryder gives a great performance even in the few scenes she has.
I have always been ambivalent about Aronofsky. I have serious problems with Requiem for a Dream yet love the audacity and scope of The Fountain. With Black Swan, he confirms that he is one of the most talented directors working today. It is both his technique and his talent for directing actors that is impressive and in full form in this film.
Shot by Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique, the film is visually stunning. It is the simple techniques employed such as the use of handheld and grainy 16mm film that add so much to the film. One more technical aspect which is so integral to the film is the score composed by Clint Mansell. Combining original material with cues based on Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake compositions, the score is always present in the film and adds to the tension and drama.
All of these aspects of the film combine to create a fantastically melodramatic, visceral film experience that is both disturbing and personal. Aronofsky has proven himself as one of the real auteurs working today. Black Swan shouldn’t be dismissed simply as a horror film as it is so much more than that. While disturbing and frightening it is also a great joy to see a film which like a ballet can be unabashedly over the top without falling into camp.