I could review The Black Swan with one word: amazing. The film is dark and shifting, conflating dreams and obsessions into a terrifying reality where nothing is certain. Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a ballerina dedicated to achieving perfection whose first starring role is threatened by a new member of the troupe, the restless and unrepentant Lily (Mila Kunis). The only question is—is it Nina’s obsession, or Lily’s, that shapes the terrible path Nina finds herself walking?
There were many thematic layers to Darren Aronofsky’s film, and unfortunately to discuss them in much detail is to give too much away about what happens. And this really is a film that you need to see the first time in a state of suspense.
That being said, Aronofsky captures rather magnificently the depth of obsession an individual can have for something, and how far it can drive her. Subservient thematically to the film, but underlying the obsessions chronicled so somehow also at the heart of the movie, is the concept of performance art as fleeting, ephemeral. By its very nature, a perfect performance cannot be more than a perfect moment, but that one perfect moment transcends everything if it is ever achieved. This idea makes the climax of the film both more glorious and more haunting.
Visually the movie is somewhere between The Wrestler and more traditionally cinematic filming. There are lots of shots from behind Nina, looking over her shoulder as she walks through corridors, into rooms, into empty spaces to show us that this is her world, her experience. But there are also wider shots, and the film is peppered with moments of visual artistry, as well. There is a continual interplay of light and dark throughout the film, echoing Nina’s “swan queen” to Lily’s “black swan”—white spotlights on a black stage, Nina’s little-girl pink room in contrast to the claustrophobic deep green of the rest of her mother’s apartment, Nina’s pale coat against the night. Aronofsky also managed to create a visual analog to a deep understanding of ballet performance to allow the film audience to understand Nina’s triumph. During the last 25 or so explosive minutes, we see the opening night of the ballet, and as Nina dances the part of the Black Swan she sprouts feathers from her very skin until she ends the dance with a full set of wings. It was stunning to watch, and it made the brilliance of that performance intelligible to people who do not have the depth of knowledge (or even interest) in dance to know if it was just good or utterly breathtaking.
Portman delivers a smashbox performance as Nina. She is fragile, repressed, determined, and afraid while on the flip side her dark “twin” comes to the surface as wild, violent, frightening, and consuming. Nina is a curious mix of relatable and yet not. On the surface she is an underdog, and because we are following her story there is an automatic sympathy for her, yet she is not an easy person to understand or warm up to. All the same as you watch her, you find yourself falling under her spell, understanding why she does these things you would probably never do, and wanting desperately for her to triumph.
Mila Kunis carried the role of “the black swan” perfectly. She is a charismatic actress, and that is the entire point of her character—to be someone people want to watch, someone people are drawn in and seduced by, even if she is not “perfect” or polished. Vincent Cassel was the director and object of Nina’s suppressed desires, Barbara Hershey was Nina’s perhaps tragic, perhaps obsessive, perhaps wonderful mother, and Winona Ryder was the erstwhile queen of the troupe whose star has finally faded.
The musical arrangement of the traditional Tchaikovsky pieces was done by Clint Mansel, probably the best musical scorer working right now and someone who understands how to create not just mood but rather atmosphere with his music. Aronfsky has worked with him several times before to brilliant effect; at a guess, anyone else’s touch on this score would have been less effective.
This is not a movie that will leave you easily once the lights go up. I found myself unwilling to read or watch television once I got home from the screening, preferring rather to prolong the mood the film had cast and probe at bit harder at my impressions of the characters and action. I am still pensive and reflective this morning, and I know this is exactly how it should be. The film is a moment of perfection in the same way the ballet it follows is, and just as rare.
The Black Swan will hit theaters in limited release December 3.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.