Director Darren Aronofsky, much like Christopher Nolan, is a director you either love or hate. In perusing the message boards for Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, audiences are hotly divided on whether the movie is brilliant or a total disaster with no shades of gray in between. The debate itself is highly ironic when compared to the movie which has many interpretations and pits black and white together. I could be making this a bigger thing than it is but these constant interpretations are what make Black Swan so fantastic. The movie sets out to present a story and leaves the audience to grasp the ending’s meaning for themselves. In a way it’s a more ambiguous, less grand, version of Inception in which there is no right or wrong despite the presence of both.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina struggling to get face time outside of the chorus. When the head of the company (Vincent Cassel) decides to create a new version of Swan Lake in which one ballerina plays both the White and Black swans he picks the timid Nina. Unfortunately Nina is only able to succeed in playing the frigid, restrained White Swan and can’t seem to “let go” enough to play the lusty Black Swan. When she meets the vulgar, free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis), a fellow dancer in the company the two strikes an uneasy friendship. As opening night gets closer Nina starts to see herself in other women and assumes Lily is trying to steal her role. The question becomes is Lily a threat, or is Nina creating one?
There’s so much to say about Black Swan, and yet the movie can’t be explained in too-much detail due to spoilers and its convoluted twists and turns. Suffice it to say Black Swan is Aronofsky’s most ambitious and complex feature to date. The director films the movie with a handheld camera to make the audience be one with Nina, a young woman striving so hard for perfection she allows it to consume her. At times the audience starts to feel voyeuristic as they watch Nina attempt to masturbate and have a rather explicit sex scene with Lily (that everyone knows about whether they’ve seen the movie or not!). In the end you start to question yourself as Nina descends further and further into madness, wondering if the whole movie is a hallucination and if not what is truly going on? In reading an early draft of the script I was surprised by some of the choices Aronofsky made, particularly with the ending, but in the end it doesn’t matter as he truly captures the struggle and obsession of the ballet world in general. At times Black Swan plays like a horror movie, a psychological thriller, and an expose on dance all at the same time. The ballet scenes are exquisite, particularly the Swan Lake scenes, and it’s wonderful to watch the two female leads actually perform and spend time contorting their feet and legs into the demanding ballet positions. Fans of The Red Shoes and Suspiria in particular will adore Black Swan.
It’s easy to see upon viewing why the two leads are receiving accolades left and right because they are fantastic. Portman gives a performance that’s daring, tragic, and endearing all at the same time. Her character is meant to be a timid little girl and at times Aronofsky beats you over the head with it as her room is an 8-year-old’s dream. Portman plays Nina as a soft-spoken waif who literally clams up when the word “sex” is mentioned. As she becomes more and more insane the actress gives such passion to the role enough that Nina becomes more and more defiant. She has electric chemistry with Kunis as Lily who gives a star-making performance as well. Kunis plays Lily as a brash and daring woman who isn’t afraid to say what she feels and sleep with someone to get ahead. As unlikable as she should seem you enjoy her more than Nina at times because she’s so outspoken and sexy. Aside from them Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey are intriguing as ballet director Thomas and Nina’s mother Eric respectively. Both actors are foils to the character of Nina and are unique in their own right.
The only issues with the movie are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Winona Ryder seems like stunt casting as aging dancer Beth Macintyre. She’s only in the film for a few minutes and she doesn’t have much of a character other than being the typical aging, once-great, dancer. Had the character developed a bit more it would have necessities casting such a name. Much like Ryder’s casting Aronofsky seems to reveal in shoving certain plot points down the audiences throat. Ryder playing a dancer past her prime, possibly implying she’s an actress past her prime? Also Nina’s childlike innocence conveyed through her room and her overabundance of pink, wonder what that means? What’s surprising is that the black and white imagery doesn’t become repetitive. The ending is also divisive as it can seem like a cop-out, complete wonderful or utter crap. The original ending I read was totally different and I enjoyed both this and what I had heard about. In the end it’s up to the audience to decide as the movie never makes a statement on an ending either way.
Overall, Black Swan is a beautiful film that brings up themes of sexual awakening, passion, obsession and perfection all of which are conveyed by the two wonderful stars. Portman and Kunis deserve all the awards heaped on them and Darren Aronofsky might have just made his masterpiece.