Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010)
Depicting a character’s descent into madness is always a juicy subject for filmmakers and screenwriters to tackle. The possibilities are endless and the execution is a wild card. Black Swan is a deeply intense and anxiety ridden tale. It takes the repetition, routine, impending doom and gradual intensity of Requiem for a Dream and the character study, bodily sacrifice and ambition of The Wrestler. His films all deal with what his characters want and what they will do to get it. Desperation and sacrifice are pretty strong themes running throughout. Usually pointing out a director’s auteur traits (however literally one takes the auteur theory) is risky only five films into a career but it is hard not to notice the kinds of stories Darren Aronofsky is drawn to. Black Swan is an astonishing combination of elements from his other films, in this story of ballet dancer Nina Sayers, who is driven to insanity through her relentless desire to be perfect.
Darren Aronofsky’s audacity is truly something to behold and admire. This is a man so confident in his skills and his ability to tell a story that he throws caution to the wind and never stops to consider if his methods might be too much for an audience. Too much in his use of overt symbolism, repetition, intensity, dips into absurdity and self-aware melodramatic execution are some examples of what ‘too much ‘means here. Black Swan is a film that requires the audience to be along for the ride. It is easy to say that this film is obvious in a lot of ways. It is also easy to overlook that this is all completely intentional on the director’s part. He wants to hit us over the head with the various elements. He is not interested in hiding his intentions. His courage to stick to this, combined with the enormity of his skill set and his impeccable ability to construct a complete vision makes Black Swan more than just a success; it is a revelation and another outstanding effort by director Darren Aronofsky.
Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin have put together a wonderful balancing act between all the different pressures and influences in Nina’s (Natalie Portman) life as well as making the overall story greatly mirror Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina is a member of a New York City ballet company. Dancing means everything to her. Nina auditions for company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) and receives the lead as the Swan Queen in the upcoming production of Swan Lake. If successful, this has the potential to launch Nina’s career as the next big star in ballet. She is very emotionally fragile and lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Erica is more than a little overbearing, coddling Nina like a child. She also has an edgy side to her which shows itself throughout the film. A former ballerina herself, Erica is living vicariously through Nina and pushes her for the ultimate success.
Each of the characters represents some kind of pressure Nina deals with in relation to her ballet, which all show in various specific ways relating to her mental collapse. While her mother relentlessly pressures her to be the best and assures her she is the best, Thomas pressures her to lose herself in dancing. He believes her technical skill is impeccable but there is no passion in her dance; all he sees are her attempts to get every move right resulting in stiffness. Thomas keeps insisting that he see the Black Swan within her. He uses extremely inappropriate ways to get her to loosen up and it is clear he has other things on his mind in addition to getting the performance he needs out of her. Nina has limited sexual experience and fulfillment is very low on her priority list. A conversation with Thomas begins another thread running through the film; Nina’s confusion and subsequent discovery of the passion within her.
There is another figure that enters Nina’s life; Lilly (Mila Kunis). Lilly most importantly represents the embodiment of the Black Swan and the looseness and carefree attitude Nina has to take on in her dancing. Her embodiment of the Black Swan also revolves around her duplicitous intentions concerning Nina. Throughout the film, Nina keeps seeing her own face wherever she goes. It is one of the many visual repetitions used to represent Nina’s gradual mental collapse. Lilly is most often where her own face turns up. Nina is drawn in by Lilly because she knows this is what Thomas wants her to become. The most interesting aspect between Nina and Lilly is that Nina seems aware of her intentions and continues to reluctantly spend time with her in an effort to first observe Lilly and then to explore her own dark side.
Yet another major player (in significance, not screen time) comes with Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). Beth was once the Nina Sayers of her time. She was a star and an icon but is now something of a drunk who has little respect from the current members of the company. The story between Thomas and Beth remains an enigma but it is clear they have a sexual history at the very least. Nina, for reasons not entirely known to her, is drawn to Beth. She is determined not to become Beth, even before her career as a ballet star begins. Near the beginning of the film, she steals Beth’s makeup. Far from being a malicious move, it shows her sympathy and intrigue towards Beth. It is a juvenile act that shows her innocence and the desire to almost romanticize and align herself with Beth for reasons unknown even to herself.
The last and most important figure of pressure in Nina’s life is Nina herself. So far there is Erica’s pressure to live vicariously through her daughter’s success, Thomas’ sexual demands and his insistence on seeing Nina capture the Black Swan’s traits and Lilly’s pressure through her known duplicity and her representation of what Nina needs to be. Then there is the struggle of, in one sense, how to become Beth Macintyre, and in another sense, how not to become Beth Macintyre. Even with all of this, Nina‘s biggest source of stress has become herself. She is unable to deal with the different expectations everyone has of her. She cannot be everything that everyone wants her to be. All Nina wants to be is ‘perfect’ but what others want of her complicates this simple goal. Almost immediately after the film starts, marks begin to show on her back. Fingernails and toenails begin to look damaged. Her body seems to be changing in a new way. She keeps seeing herself everywhere. She isn’t emotionally capable of handling what is being thrown at her. Her constant emotional breakdowns begins to be taken over by something much stronger; the breakdown of her mental state.
As I said earlier, Aronofsky’s goal seems to be making a film every bit as theatrical as the ballet, and theater in general, can be. Subtlety is his last concern. Black and white production design is everywhere. Nina’s room is covered in white, pink and stuffed animals (including among a sea of white, a black swan) showing her childlike innocence. She wears white for the first half of the film, before giving way to grey as she begins to lose herself. Lilly conveniently wears black. Mirrors are everywhere. Thomas repeatedly states that he cannot see Nina’s “Black Swan”. She sees her double in almost every other scene. Her metamorphosis is taken to a clear metaphorical extreme. The film builds to a crescendo of pure melodrama and theatricality complete with a fusion between film and ballet as well as a twist that becomes self-aware tragedy.
It is easy to see why some viewers may be put off by Black Swan. For me, Aronofsky’s relentless approach with repetition works in every sense. Through being direct to the visual and thematic motifs, he has created another immediate experience. Being up front allows him to indulge and make a film with a very specific feel to it. He has a fantastic ability of slowly building up tension which eventually becomes an explosion of visceral feeling for the audience. The entire film is from Nina’s perspective. The goal here is essentially to capture Nina’s experience and to transfer it to the audience. All Nina knows are the elements that we see. Ballet consumes her and these visual themes show what she experiences. Anything unnecessary that does not contribute to depicting Nina’s unraveling mental state is absent. The mirrors, black and white, etc. all represent an aspect of Nina’s downfall. They essentially are what she is experiencing and it is used to put together a full and pure vision of her perspective.
The camera always stays close to Nina, even in the ballet sequences. There are countless scenes of her training and rehearsal for Swan Lake. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique captures the movement of ballet through his movement of the camera. He weaves in and out, moves up and down and circles Nina without ever taking away from the beauty of the movement. Natalie Portman impressively does most of the dancing in the film which allows Aronofsky and Libatique to have long takes and seldom cutting around a ballet double. The ballet scenes are truly something to behold, especially the dream sequence that kicks off the film and everything in the last act as Swan Lake has its debut performance.
Natalie Portman’s delicacy grounds the film by making Nina every bit as sympathetic and brittle as she is meant to be. It is a performance that is certainly a career best and ranks along with Ellen Burstyn and Mickey Rourke’s contributions in films made by Darren Aronofsky. She solidifies Black Swan as a character study amidst the theatrics which could have easily overpowered a less capable actress. It is some of the best film acting of 2010 without a doubt. Vincent Cassel sufficiently embodies Thomas as the slimy, brilliant and darkly humorous company director. Barbara Hershey’s Erica made me more nervous than anything else going on in this film. Whether threatening to throw a cake out or sitting creepily and silently in a room, Hershey is alternately doting and chilling as Nina’s mother. Mila Kunis is very impressive as the imposing Lilly. The way her character tests the waters with Nina by saying or asking something and then draws back immediately is wonderful. Seeing Lilly play her own motivations as well as embodying the Black Swan and serving as the metaphor the story needs her to, makes this a harder role than one would think. She brings a complex magnetism to her scenes and has some particularly fantastic line deliveries. Finally, Winona Ryder brings some real life parallel to her role as Beth. Not to say that Ryder’s career dip is as extreme as Beth but it is hard not to think about where her career once was. She does a fine job and I always love seeing her. In 4th grade, our class was instructed to write a biography on anyone we admire; I picked Winona Ryder. It is ten pages, handwritten and I still have it. As you can imagine, seeing her even in a small but important role in a film getting this kind of attention is especially exciting.
Black Swan is an intentionally theatrical and visceral character study. Clint Mansell’s Swan Lake inspired score catapults the film into passionate frenzy. The script by Heyman, Heinz and McLaughlin is carefully patterned by jumping to Nina’s various forms of pressure only to shake us up at the right moments. Aronofsky takes the script’s pattern and lends his own specific and clear visual pattern to the film, allowing for the creation of Nina Sayers’ distinct mental collapse. There are many sources the director takes from and all of them have been named in other reviews, so it is pointless to go into them. It is a joy to see how he uses these films to influence this work which is a worthy addition. It is an endlessly rewarding and exhausting experience, but an experience it is and Aronofsky continues to prove that he is one of the most vital filmmakers working today with Black Swan which is personally my favorite film from 2010 thus far.