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 the 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 evolution that she undergoes psychologically is mirrored through sporadic and jarring hallucinations. 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. Portman is able to play the polar opposites of the film with distinction. She starts off the film a prudent perfectionist and slowly progresses into personifying seduction and unpredictability.
Her transformation is ingeniously crafted in a cloud of abstract reality. The viewer is constantly struggling to know what is real and what is a hallucination. As Nina pursue’s perfection she is challenged to reconsider what perfection means and how you achieve it. As she 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, through allegory, represented by her physical hallucinations as she transforms into the black swan, and, through a narrative rooted in psychology, shown through her struggle to maintain a healthy mental state and through self-mutilation. The lines are blurred between a real life struggle with mental health and an artistic representation of raw emotion. For example, As Nina gets lost deeper and deeper into the black swan character her emotional state progressively deteriorates. Resulting in lacerations to her back that are explained in two ways, artistically, by growing wings out of her back, and with a real life explanation, she scratches her back feverishly in order to cope with anxiety.
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 actors are supported by a framework of creative framing and cinematography that amplifies their 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. One example is with his use of mirrors in the film. There are two major aspects I love about his use of mirrors. Generally, mirrors are used to show self reflection. 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. Everything from the way the story, Swan Lake, is embedded within itself, the framing and sequencing of every shot, and the captivating acting staff, creates a 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