Director Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE WRESTLER) is not a subtle filmmaker. His films often feel like they're pounding, pounding, pounding their audience into submission, with deliciously all-too-human horror that confronts the viewer in such a way that forces them to either love the film or hate it. There's really no in-between for an Aronofsky film. His body of work could probably best be described as typically divisive. His latest effort, the psychodrama BLACK SWAN, is no different. The thriller, starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a ballerina up for the role of the Swan Queen in SWAN LAKE, a production under the control of hard-line artistic director Thomas (a brilliant Vincent Cassel), starts by recalling countless earlier ballet-centric films, notably THE RED SHOES - a film which can't help but be invoked by the mere mention of a powerful ballet director and a struggling dancer - and ends with notes of body horror, psychological melt-down and the destructive impulse that drives its obsessed central character toward perfection and destruction.
Nina strives for perfection as a dancer, and is selected for the role because the White Swan should be a technically perfected part, but Thomas still has his doubts about her turn as the Black Swan, who he envisions as a bit more loose and wild than Nina ever allows herself to be. Enter the rivalry of another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), much more sensual than Nina's perfected technique would ever allow. Nina may lose her part, Lily and Thomas may be conspiring against her, and she may or may not be transforming, quite literally, into some horrific thing. Aronofsky has utilized the thematics of the ballet SWAN LAKE to create a real-world mirroring of its central conceit: two sides of the same coin, dooming one another, and only because they are one and the same, and it works perfectly as a horror film.
Something tells me, though, that this may end up becoming a major issue, as horror can most certainly be used as a derogatory term when it comes to the world of ballet. It's a largely insular culture, with its aficionados holding strong aesthetic opinions of good and bad that comes with the territory (all artistic and critical communities are the same in this regard), and I don't think they'll be too pleased with the actual presentation of ballet in the film (indeed, James Wolcott's review makes this point for me). It's a backdrop, and not the show, and even Natalie Portman's year of training for the role doesn't really make much sense considering Aronofsky's film (and the horror/thriller genre in general) is more concerned with intimacy and brooding intensity - a point the film's many close-ups of Portman's gaunt face and leaner, more bruised and calloused frame hammers home more efficiently than any medium shot of the dancing going on around them ever could. In reality, the close-ups of her body never had to be the real Portman, but, just as it did with Mickey Rourke's scarred torso in THE WRESTLER, the fact that it is only serves to add to the visceral impact the shots have in conveying the physical impracticalities of such a demanding lifestyle on a biological level, let alone the strain it can have on the psyche.
Given the obsession the film has with Nina's strictly-governed and routine-driven existence becoming unraveled by her awakening to her own desires and her growing sensual self-awareness, there is naturally a strong sexual element to the relationships Nina forms with both Thomas and Lily, with each offering some new and thrilling experience that could end up dooming her chances at being a successful dancer. This sexual awakening is accompanied with both horror and pitch black comedy. Thomas, perhaps unprofessionally, but with a point nonetheless, in an attempt to drive the point home to Nina, who just can't stop being perfect, asks a male dancer point-blank, "would you fuck this girl?" In another scene Nina wakes up and starts to masturbate, and just as she reaches arousal, with her back arched and her stomach down, she looks over and sees her mother sleeping in a chair next to her bed. These scenes serve to shock us and make us laugh uncomfortably. They are uncomfortable scenes in a film filled with discomforting thoughts and uncomfortable relationships that shed light on the whole absurdity of the assumptions various characters make about one another, specifically concerning sexual desires and inclinations. Even the assumptions made about Lily are horrifying to hear coming out of Nina's mouth - especially when we find out the truth behind the night in question. They may as well all be losing their minds.
In many ways, BLACK SWAN is a culmination of Aronofsky's body of work to date, one in which his primary concerns of psychological and physical trauma are perfectly married into a perfect vehicle. THE WRESTLER with more darkness, or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with more sympathetic identification. And, like his much-criticized but underrated work THE FOUNTAIN, he is again here obsessed with doubles, and features many a fantastic shot by frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique that features multiple mirror images of Nina. The motif is blunt, much like the parallels between the story of the ballet SWAN LAKE and the film, but it hits and it sticks, and it has stayed with me since I first saw the credits roll all the way back in September. This is Aronofsky's masterpiece.
I feel like I haven't successfully conveyed anything about the supporting actors or their roles, but I also don't feel that it's necessarily important that I do. As fantastic as Barbara Hershey is as the domineering ex-ballerina mother (an important stock character in ballet films), or as much fun as Winona Ryder is as the aging ex-lead ballerina whom Nina is replacing, the film is really only concerned with Nina. Even Lily and Thomas are extensions of the almost entirely subjective view we are provided by Aronofsky as a window into this story. We feel for Nina because she is a classical tragic figure, marching toward an end as inevitable as any the rest of us can expect, albeit one with a much better soundtrack.