Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a fresh interpretation of the 19th century ballet, Swan Lake. The film follows Nina, played by Natalie Portman, as she trains for the part of the white/black swan. A role that requires her to metamorphose from her pure and immaculate persona into an untamed embodiment of raw sexuality. Nina’s agonizing drive for perfection takes her on an odyssey into madness. Aronofsky’s creative style and vision emphasizes her impending psychosis in this psychological thriller.
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin crafted a dark and electrifying reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The concept of following Nina as she portrays both the white and black swan as well as struggle through a parallel transformation of her psyche, resulted in a thrilling retelling of an old tale. The sporadic and jarring hallucinations help illustrate the psychological anguish in a visceral way. Nina’s journey through post-adolescence leads her to push herself beyond her boundaries, explore her sexuality, and break away from a controlling upbringing and into a self determining individual.
As usual, Aronofsky is able to capture captivating performances from his actors. There is a profusion of chemistry between Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey. Each actor plays their character and archetype to a tee. Natalie Portman leads the way with her dedication and elegance in the film. For example, her ability to portray the polar opposites of the film with distinction. She starts off the film a prudent perfectionist and slowly progresses into personifying seduction and unpredictability.
Nina’s transformation teeters on the edge of sanity. An aspect that is common in Aronofsky films. The viewer is constantly struggling to know what is real and what is a hallucination. Perfection is what Nina strives for and she battles to achieve that goal throughout the film. Thus, forcing her to reconsider what perfection means and how you achieve it.
As Nina pushes herself, the viewer is able to see how her stress pushes her to lose her sense of reality. Aronofsky reveals her struggle in multiple forms. The first, through allegory, represented by her physical hallucinations as she transforms into the black swan. Secondly, through a narrative rooted in psychology, shown through her struggle to maintain a healthy mental state and through self-mutilation.
The dichotomy between reality and hallucination create grounded rationale for various happenings in the film. This can be seen through Nina’s emotional state progressively deteriorating as she gets lost deeper and deeper into her character. For example, the scene where her back lacerations are revealed. It is unclear if she is growing wings, a metaphorical explanation, or scarring from self inflicted abuse due to her anxiety. The consistency and intensity behind these two paths throughout the film makes it both heart wrenching and exhilarating. We see Nina as a tortured soul struggling through her anxiety as well as her relief and pleasure when she is able to, occasionally, let go.
The team behind this film clearly had an attuned attention to detail and ability to frame each shot and sequence to mimic the tone, emotion, and theme of the story. Every aspect of this film works together to tell the story. The creative framing and cinematography amplifies the actors’ performances and helps fully immerse the viewer in the moment.
Aronofsky’s use of the camera is so exceptional you would think it was an appendage. Every shot reflects the tone and emotionality of the scene. His use of the camera helps tell the story as if it is a character in the film. For example, his use of mirrors throughout the entire film.
There are two major aspects I love about his use of mirrors. Generally speaking, mirrors represent self reflection. Not just by reflecting the image of the actor, but subtly hinting that the character’s themselves are self reflecting. In this film the mirror is like a gateway that separates the hemispheres of this film’s themes. The mirror acts as a literal separation between light and dark. Throughout the film Nina sees her ‘other half’ in the mirror. As she struggles to maintain control, the mirror functions as the catalyst that pushes her over the edge and into darkness.
Another aspect of the mirrors that I found interesting was Aronofsky’s seamless incorporation of mirrors into shots. In one sequence, we see Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel, as he watches Nina dance. The camera focuses on Thomas, in the foreground, and his reaction to her dancing with a ‘full wall mirror’ behind him. Since we are seeing Nina through a “mirror” we are really seeing Nina’s ‘other half’. The consistency of seeing ‘the black swan’ through the mirror is maintained and we can see Vincent’s reaction to her, all in a single shot.
Aronofsky and his team skillfully utilized every tool at their disposal to amplify every scene. Nothing is wasted or an after thought. It is clear that painstaking measures are taken to embed Swan Lake within itself. This is strengthened further by the framing and sequencing of every shot and by the captivating acting staff. We are left with a creative visual experience with no excess fat. Every aspect of this film has a purpose and meaning.
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Screenplay by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Music by: Clint Mansell
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Runtime: 1h 48m
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Psychological
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures