Black Swan could almost be called The Wrestler 2 despite not featuring strapping, muscle-bound men in tights and torn jeans beating each other with their fists and the occasional piece of hardware in bouts with predetermined outcomes; Darren Aronofsky here uses the lens of ballet to continue examining the lengths performance artists will go to, physically, in the pursuit of their craft, and the mental toll that their quest ultimately takes on them. In doing so, he both earns admission into the exclusive club of directors who, in 2010, created films about making art, and also makes one of the most artistic and high-concept horror films in the last five years, recalling the films of Polanski, Lynch, Cronenberg, and even Argento. The myriad blend of sensibilities and aesthetics make Black Swan stand out out of and in context with 2010’s slate of films, and quite honestly identify it as Aronofsky’s most accomplished movie to date, an unnerving portrait of a young woman unraveling as she strives to attain perfection as an artist and as a human.
Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could keep it together were they to find themselves in Nina’s (Natalie Portman at her very best) position: newly elected as the lead in a boldly stripped-down interpretation of Swan Lake, directed by a man lascivious in his brilliance (Vincent Cassell), or perhaps the other way around, hounded by a domineering and abusive mother (Barbara Hershey), and utterly paranoid over the security of her star thanks to the appearance of a potential rival in Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina finds herself burdened with intense pressure built up rapidly in the first act of the film. That she begins to unravel just as expeditiously comes as no surprise, and indeed the bulk of Black Swan concerns itself with her meltdown as she struggles to balance her role against the other stress factors of her life.
What may take audiences off-guard is the grue and violence which constitute her internal collapse. Aronofsky’s not afraid to exhibit brutalities upon his protagonists, but what Nina undergoes here differs vastly from what Randy puts himself through in The Wrestler— bloodshed is part of his performance. Not so for Nina, for whom it’s part of her practicing, however intentional it is or isn’t. Certainly some of Nina’s injuries, like broken toe nails, are part of being a dancer, but it’s difficult to imagine this to be true of shredding one’s fingertips.
And therein lies the dichotomy central to the film, that contrast between horrific ugliness and striking beauty. Black Swan is one long build up, comprised of Nina’s self-mutilations and alternately trippy and frightening hallucinations as she strives to attain her concept of perfection; it’s a film that walks the line between jump scares and dancing that’s rapturous in its grace and passion. The majority of the film’s run time is spent putting Nina through the ringer, and she endures all of it in the hope that when the curtains rise on opening night she can deliver the performance of her life. Maybe in the hands of someone else, a film like this might have felt like two different stories edited together, but the gap of disparity that Aronofsky wedges between his two primary elements ends up tying the film together and making it whole as he finds something exquisite by exploring something grotesque.
In that division, Black Swan yields commentary on the artistic process, not so much in terms of the cliched idea that artists suffer in order to create– that’s too simple and, put bluntly, uninteresting. Instead, the film seems to speak to the inherent value of the fleeting moment in time that people like Nina and Randy seek to actualize by toiling and training endlessly. Whereas, for the sake of argument, a painter fashions a physical object to memorialize their efforts, nothing save for the memory of the performance remains for artists like those of Aronofsky films. So really, Black Swan isn’t about how artists suffer for their art, but rather what they’re willing to suffer in exchange for something so temporal. There’s something in that that’s at least admirable if not beautiful.
But to manifest all of that internal agony, one needs a talented actress in the lead, which brings us to Natalie Portman. You might have heard that she’s kind of good here, to the point where describing her portrait of Nina Sayers as “career-best” isn’t a stretch by a longshot. You might scoff– she was in the Star Wars prequels after all– but this is an actress with a strong pedigree hailing back to 1994’s Leon, supplemented by films such as V For Vendetta, Brothers, and Closer. Regardless, she’s simply outstanding here, making Nina porcelain-fragile and giving her instability without turning her into a cartoonish headcase. Nina’s practically a child in terms of her naivety, her vulnerability, and her timidness, as though the girl was never given a chance to grow up into a young woman; it’s Portman’s acting that raises her from one level of maturity to the next, and she makes that transformation palpable. Whether she wins her Oscar or not, there’s no doubt that Black Swan holds a place of honor on her filmography– it’s an incredible performance from a source that some may not have expected.
Aronofsky scored two other winners in the casting department with Cassell and Hershey. Hershey’s getting a lot of deserved attention for playing Nina’s overbearing, oppressive, and equally unbalanced mother; arguably of all the film’s horrors, Erica Sayers is the greatest, an unrelenting force of smothering emotion vicariously living through her daughter. But Hershey’s performance isn’t the only among the supporting cast of note, and Cassell is every bit as great as Thomas Leroy, Nina’s director. We learn, early on, that he has a reputation for licentiousness and also for being a brilliant director, and while it doesn’t show at first it turns out to be the case that both have merit. Cassell perfectly balances Thomas’ salaciousness with directorial genius, using the former often to compliment the latter; in the hands of another actor Thomas would have just been a creep, but Cassell clearly draws him as a driven, highly intelligent, and yes, pervy artist. Along the way, the aforementioned Ms. Ryder and Ms. Kunis turn out solid, if minor, performances; Ryder as the falling star, and Kunis as the young upstart dancer new to the company with a devil-may-care attitude. It’s not a reach for Kunis in the slightest, and she does what Mila Kunis does by bringing her natural effortless sex appeal and humor to the role to create a worthy foil for Nina.
And of course there’s Aronofsky himself. If there are other reasons aside from common themes to describe this as The Wrestler 2, then they entirely relate to cinematography and aesthetic. Aronofsky uses the same cinéma vérité touch as he did in his previous movie to great effect; one could argue that he’s merely recycling himself but so many directors come to favor specific techniques and style over others that that reads as a bit of a stretch. Ultimately the collaboration between Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique yields a sense of realism which heightens the tension found in the film’s more fantastical and macabre moments; it draws those pieces more to the forefront, making them feel more real for the world that they’re taking place in.
In the end, Black Swan is simply a dizzying piece of cinema. With it Aronofsky proves once more his vitality as an artist and his stature as one of the best directors working today, and Portman’s talent should no longer be questioned by anybody. At the very least Aronofsky displays a willingness to peer into why we create art and examine how it all has value, but interpretations aside he’s put forth a truly gripping picture about the pressures of performing at the highest levels of one’s craft and also the sort of mature highbrow horror movie that rarely gets made these days. It’s a spectacular film by all accounts; certainly one of the best of Aronofsky’s career, and easily at the top of the pack (the very top, in fact, at least for me) of 2010.