Nina is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her obsessive former ballerina mother Erica who exerts a suffocating control over her. When artistic director Thomas Leroy decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, but Nina has competition in the shape of Lily, who, if Nina is the perfect fit for the White Swan, is the personification of the Black Swan. As their rivalry becomes a strange friendship and Nina starts to get in touch with her dark side, she starts to have trouble differentiating fantasy from reality…….
It is my humble opinion that Darren Aronovsky is one of the ten best filmmakers working today. His first three films show an escalation from excellence to sheer brilliance, with The Fountain being one of the greatest works of art the cinema had produced in a long time. He didn’t get widespread critical acclaim though until The Wrestler, though for me it was by far his least interesting film [though still very good by normal standards]. With the exception of a few dissenters, Black Swan appears to be having a similar reception, with some hailing it at as a true masterpiece, something I personally don’t quite agree with. Black Swan is fantastic filmmaking and may well end up being the best film this year [and it’s only January!], but for me it does have a few problems that hold it back from being nearly perfect. I want to emphasize that Black Swan is a very good movie, and in some ways can be seen as a compendium of Aronovsky’s work to date-if this was a different movie then I may very well be raving about it-but I kind of wanted and expected more from it than I actually got.
What we basically have here is a psychological horror film merged with The Red Shoes, and make no mistake this is a horror film, right from the beginning where an incredibly uncomfortable but enveloping sense of unease is created and sustained throughout. Even the most potentially innocuous scenes have this feeling, yet it’s hard at first to put your finger on why, until one starts to become aware of a devilish but still very subtle use of sound effects. When Aronovsky manages to make a lesbian sex scene downright scary, you know one again you’re watching a genius at work. The house that Nina shares with her mother feels really haunted, full of dark secrets that may manifest themselves, and Erica is the scariest mother I’ve seen in a long time-Hitchcock would have loved her- even though she doesn’t actually do much that’s nasty. There’s some great David Cronenberg style body horror, as Nina’s hallucinations show things like webbed feet, skin that needs to be pulled off a finger etc., but what really surprised me though were some really effective jump scares, including the freakiest bath moment since What Lies Beneath. Aronovsky is really good at this stuff and seems totally at home with horror and horror conventions, even throwing in a really quite shocking face stabbing as well a wonderful variant on the old ‘moving eyes behind picture’ gag. Of course this is also a ballet movie, and you’ve never seen ballet filmed like this, with a handheld camera that sweeps around and between the dances-here, the aim is not so much to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of ballet but to feel it. This is done brilliantly without shaking the camera around or having lots of cuts that last half a second, and you can still see exactly what’s going on-a lesson to a lot of other filmmakers. As he did with wrestlers, Aronovsky is fascinated by what makes ballet dancers tick and want to do what they do, and we really get a sense of the milieu, of the rituals, and of the sheer difficulty of performing the art. And of course the pain and physical damage-I was almost cringing when Nina was standing on her toes, so successful was the film on evoking how uncomfortable that must be, and a broken toe moment really made me recoil because it’s something we can all probably relate to. In many ways this is a ballet movie for those who wouldn’t normally watch or even enjoy ballet, and yet it feels so incredibly authentic.
So what lets it down? Well primarily, it’s the script. Almost all the characters, from the pushy mother to the young pushy upstart, are exaggerated stock types, and although that can work, I basically had trouble thinking of them as real people, with the result that, although I was dazzled by the brilliant filmmaking, I didn’t actually care very much. One good example is Thomas Leroy the director-he’s such a sleazy creep and a sexual pest that I couldn’t buy for a minute that Nina would want to be in the same room as him after their first encounter. Considering the sense of authenticity and [admittedly sometimes heightened] reality in the depiction of the world of ballet, I thought this created a severe in balance in the film. Now I love movies featuring mental breakdowns from the protagonist’s point of view, so that fantasy and reality merge, and throughout the film I was reminded of quite a few previous movies such as Repulsion and The Machinist. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the trouble was I’d seen it all before and there wasn’t enough originality to compensate, so the filmmakers decided to beat us over the head with it. For example the mirror imagery, I simply got fed up with it after a while and felt like shouting out “Yes, Darren, I get the point”. This movie is full on in its approach and that’s great but I would have liked to see a bit of subtlety at times to balance things out. Black Swan frankly isn’t as complex as it thinks it is-the metaphors are so obvious as to almost seem a little dumb, and what on earth is it trying to say, apart from the usual stuff about the dangers of pursuing something too obsessively? If The Red Shoes seemed to be saying that art and reality can’t exist simultaneously, that you have to have one or the other, what I mainly got from Black Swan is that art needs a healthy dose of sexuality to flourish, even if it’s very dangerous……which brings me to the sexual element. Although it’s there to show Nina’s ‘other’ side, the more wild and dangerous one, surfacing, the lesbian element still feels tacked on, and, while watching Natalie Portman playing with herself is not an entirely unpleasant sight, we don’t need to see it twice.
Natalie Portman is entirely deserving of the acclaim she is getting as Nina-the script doesn’t give us much detail about her character, but through lots of little details she creates a spellbinding and entirely convincing portrayal of a mental breakdown, though I think the film misses a beat by showing her overly fragile even at the beginning. Mila Kunis does a good job of perhaps the most relatable character Lily, but the two performances I liked best were a rather frightening Barbara Hershey as the mother and a surprisingly good [I’ve never rated her much as an actress] Winona Ryder as Beth- she really makes a mark in quite a small role, an unforgettable reminder of the facts that fame is fleeting and the old has to make way for the new. Tchaikovsky’s stirring music is superbly played and recorded, while Clint Mansell’s more minimalist but extremely effective score is so cleverly interwoven with the Tchaikovsky music that even I [who consider myself very musical] sometimes had trouble telling one from the other. Another great example of the way music can be used in a film is during a nightclub sequence, where the music playing played works well as background ‘source’ music and also as a commentary on what is happening and a reflection of the state of Nina’s mind. For example when she has just ‘come up’ on what could be Ecstasy [though it’s not made clear] and starts dancing it’s ‘uplifting’ house music, but later when she’s leaving and is emotionally a mess, very dark drum and bass is playing. There is no doubt that Black Swan has much in it that’s remarkable and Aronovsky has made another fine film [is he capable of making a bad or even an average one?]. I don’t think, though, that it’s quite the masterpiece that many are proclaiming it to be.