Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
With Darren Aronofsky you know you will get something ambitious, whether its ambitious in its drama (Requiem for a Dream), its scope (The Fountain), or its simplicity (The Wrestler). Are they always winners? Nope, but they always bring forth a completely unique vision and experience. With Black Swan, Aronofsky is bringing together elements from all his previous work. You have the severe schizophrenic breakdown of a character, you have a hallucinatory transformations, and you have the destruction of the physical body for the sake of one’s art. The film also breaks the boundaries of genre by being both one of the best dramas and one of the best horror films of the year.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is one of the many dancers that perform at New York’s Lincoln Center. The prima ballerina of the company (Ryder) is on her way and out and the manipulative director, Thomas (Cassel) is looking for his new “little princess”. A re-interpretive staging of Swan Lake is in the works and Nina finds herself in competition with the new girl, Lily (Kunis). Lily works against the conventions of the ballerina, staying out late, dropping ecstasy, and being very laid back with her work ethic. Nina must also contend with her mother (Hershey) who is babies her daughter and attempts to mold her into the dancer she failed to be. Nina is suffering from strange abrasions on her back and is beginning to have intense nightmares about the ballet. All of this is leading down a dark and destructive path….or is she merely fighting against those who have constrained her since she was a child.
Everything about this film clicks, the performances are pitch perfect and the direction from Aronofksy hits on all cylinders. There is the return of the shaky handheld cinematography of The Wrestler that adds that vérité feel to the story. In direct contrast to the realism of cinematography there is amazing use of makeup and CG effects. The films does a great job in balancing the psychological horror, and will make you question deeply what events actually happen to Nina and which are the product of a fragmented mind. I was most impressed with how Portman manages to infantilize Nina’s behavior in very subtle and nuanced ways. She doesn’t babytalk, but the way she interacts with her mother and her director bring out her childlike mentality. Her rebellion against these forces of control is played naturally and its horrific outcome resonates in the mind for a long time after.