Humanity has always been interested in the quest for perfection or, perhaps more suitably, perfection in a specific aspect. This has translated into cinema, where a character strives for some form of utopia (romantic, social status, etc.). One particular quest is that of the artist trying to achieve perfection in their form. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan focuses on the ballet dancer and follows in the footsteps of The Red Shoes, which also portrays the lead character’s battle with reality as they strive for greatness.
Black Swan follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a diminutive ballet dancer in a New York company. The lead dancer Beth (Winona Ryder) is retiring and the company’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is searching for a new star for the next season, beginning with a reimagining of “Swan Lake”. Determined to earn the part, Nina attempts to personify the Black Swan. First, however, she must overcome rival Lily (Mila Kunis), her overprotective mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and, most of all, herself.
Since his debut feature Pi, Darren Aronofsky has commanded the art of filmmaking to powerful effect. While always heavily influenced by cinematic trends, it is only in The Wrestler and Black Swan that he has made traditional genre films. While The Wrestler is indebted to social realist cinema, Black Swan achieves a synthesis between the psychological and melodrama trends. So much so that Black Swan is closer in form to Suspiria and Repulsion than The Red Shoes. Yet while Repulsion was masterful in its physical expression of a woman’s anxieties and Suspiria was deeply unsettling, Darren Aronofsky’s newest feature is a blunt feature that romanticises its protagonist’s mental illness to disturbing levels.
Nina’s easy accomplishment of the White Swan is unsurprising, as her troubled quest for perfection suffocates the viewer during the first act. Rigid (even down to the way she wears her bun), sexually repressed, extremely fragile and living with an overbearing mother – it’s remarkable she has survived in a ballet company. Aronofsky leaves no question to her infantile nature as she wears pink and is always on the verge of tears.
While melodrama can work magnificently with broad strokes and polar opposites, Black Swan never steps out of its simplicity. As Nina begins giving into the liberation of the Black Swan and embraces her passions, she starts dressing in black and becomes volatile in behaviour. It seems to not matter if she chooses to stay repressed or strive for artistic triumph; either way she is mad – just one more external than the other.
When the film starts questioning Nina’s point of view, the certainty of what is real becomes increasingly harder to distinguish. Yet this never becomes more than a novelty, as it never shocks or unsettles the viewer. Instead, the audience is left to contemplate the inevitable demise of the protagonist as Aronofsky hammers in her fate three times before the third act. The uninspiring ballet sequences prior to the climax are also frustrating. The attachment of ballet feels crude and never manages to pull off the blend of melodrama, hyper-reality and impacting choreography that The Red Shoes did.
It seems unfair to only mention the film’s negatives as there is plenty to admire. Natalie Portman gives the performance of her career, while Barbara Hershey is unnerving in every scene. Mila Kunis is also lifted by the great cast surrounding her. A technical aspect that must also be mentioned is Black Swan’s soundtrack. Not just in its choice of music but the heightened levels of noises, including the pirouette turn, is masterful. The aforementioned climatic sequence is also a brilliant piece of filmmaking but its emotional impact is lost if the viewer is not on board by then.
Black Swan may be a sensory extravaganza with some brilliant performances from its leads, yet it loses any goodwill in the representation of the main character’s madness and the simplicity in its style and symbolism. While the film should be acknowledged for its artistic merits, Black Swan is merely exploitative when it should be subversive.