Fantastically deranged at all times, ‘Black Swan’ directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Mother!) is for many, the pinnacle of the director’s filmography as of yet. As the film’s combination of numerous genres soon evolves into an incredibly unique experience that leaps onto the stage in an effort to impress, with its gorgeous lighting, dreamlike atmosphere and occasionally grotesque visuals all elevating the film’s twisted tale of a dancer obsessed with achieving her dreams. And whilst the film does trip over itself once or twice, its faults are few and far between.
Plot Summary: When ‘Nina,’ a ballerina for the New York ballet company discovers she has been chosen for the lead role in the company’s production of: ‘Swan Lake,’ she struggles to maintain her sanity as her rival dancers, eccentric casting director and obsessive mother twist her perception of reality, forcing ‘Nina’ to prove herself worthy of the duel role and be the exemplary for both the ‘White’ and ‘Black Swan.’
Although the film was never marketed as such, director Darren Aronofsky has always maintained that ‘Black Swan’ is first and foremost a psychological horror film, as the story delves into themes of mental illness and obsession, in addition to displaying many graphic sequences of what is essentially body-horror. And yet, the film also somehow manages to never feel restrained to just one genre, which is what keeps it so compelling. This experimental nature might also explain why it took around ten years to be green-lit, as Aronofsky made many changes to the original screenplay in an attempt to get the film funded, with his original hopes for a budget of around £22 million being drastically lowered to roughly £9 million in the end.
The phenomenal lead performance from Natalie Portman nabbed the actress an Oscar back in 2010, and throughout the film it quickly becomes clear as to why she won, as Portman flawlessly portrays ‘Nina’ as a committed and talented dancer being crushed by the pressure of the role she is undertaking. Portman even went to the extent of altering her voice (which had been continuously criticised by directors in the past for its childish qualities), as Aronofsky requested that for the role of: ‘Nina,’ Portman would need to regress backwards and make her voice more child-like. Furthermore, Portman not only lost over twenty-pounds for the role, but at least 95% of the dancing seen within the film was performed by Portman herself, with the professional ballerina Sarah Lane acting as her body/dance double for the complex en-pointe work. All of this is without even mentioning the excellent supporting cast of Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, whose performances all add to the film’s surrealist feel.
Matthew Libatique handles the cinematography, which despite relying far too heavily on hand-held shots during some scenes, also makes for some truly astonishing visuals at points. As the film’s cinematic lighting alongside the grand gothic influence that the film borrows from cult horrors and other art-house films, most notably, the stylised supernatural horror: ‘Suspiria’ from 1977, grant the film a very distinct and striking look. Aronofsky’s trademark of camerawork also creeps its way into the film, as there are a number of moments throughout the runtime where the camera tracks ‘Nina’ from behind as she walks through various locations, giving the cinematography a great sense of movement not too dissimilar to leaping across a stage.
The original score by Clint Mansell also suitably feels like a score composed for a ballerina recital, as ‘Black Swan’s orchestral soundtrack is mostly a variation on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ ballet, the only difference being that the notes are played backwards in a distorted manner. This makes the entire score feel very extravagant and almost overly dramatic, as tracks like ‘Nina’s Dream,’ ‘A Swan is Born’ and ‘Perfection’ add to both the tragedy and beauty of the story.
As previously mentioned, due to its many scenes of graphic (and frankly disturbing) moments of mutilation, ‘Black Swan’ is far from an easy watch. As while the film doesn’t feature any ‘gore’ per-say, all of the scenes of: ‘Nina’s harmful acts towards herself feel more grounded in realism as a result of how minimal they are, with all of the skin picking and dancing injuries she endures being reminiscent of a real disorder, known to medical professions as dermatillomania, a disorder primarily related to skin scratching and/or skin picking.
In conclusion, even though many believe ‘Black Swan’ to be Aronofsky’s best effort, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ will always be my personal favourite film from the distinctive director, as in spite of: ‘Black Swan’s beautiful visuals and captivating narrative, the film also feels like it isn’t quite reaching its full potential, mostly due to its overuse of hand-held camerawork and unexplored characters and ideas. Regardless, this art-house horror does sustain its entertainment value for the most part, and just like many other art-house films, can be interpreted very differently from viewer-to-viewer. Final Rating: high 7/10.