- Vancouver, British Columbia - The name Darren Aronofsky is not exactly a household name in America, but within Hollywood, his name is synonymous with gritty, raw storytelling with such films as Requiem For a Dream (2000) and The Wrestler (2008). In 2006, he deviated from the jagged cinematography that has come to characterize much of his work by directing The Fountain. His most recent work, Black Swan, however, returns to the simplicity of his two of his more recognizable films.
Black Swan in many ways shares a certain familiarity with The Wrestler, though they are focusing on two polar opposite forms of the performing arts. On one hand, you have the graceful elegance of the stage art of ballet, while on the other, you have the haphazardly choreographed art, if you will, of professional wrestling. One is often associated with femininity, while the other is essentially the hyper-masculine version of a dance performance, only with implied, and sometimes actual, violence.
Black Swan removes any sort of veneer about the perceived innocence of the dance arts. While the female ballet dancers may look thin, graceful, and gentle, Aronofsky shows us in Black Swan that the competition is just as fierce as any sports tryout. Nonetheless, Aronofsky aimed for more than merely demonstrating this. In Black Swan, we meet Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), an overly dedicated ballet dancer, seeking perfection in the dance art of ballet. Her whole life centres around ballet and she forgoes any possible other distraction. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is the artistic director of a New York Ballet Company and is looking to replace his aging star, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the company's latest production of Swan Lake, and a battle ensues between Nina and the new girl in the dance company, Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily, however, is a free-spirited dancer, who is led by her passions and her urges, which runs in conflict with Nina's orderly routine and her focus on perfection and control. The problem is that Swan Lake demands a dancer who can exemplify the grace and gentleness of the White Swan character, as well as the tormented, raging passion that fuels the Black Swan character. Nina is well-suited to the role of the White Swan, while Lily is perfectly matched for the role of the Black Swan, yet the same dancer must perform both. Jealousy develops into obsession and we see the life of a dancer spiraling into chaos.
Natalie Portman executes her role with near perfection, showing us a character who strives for perfection, but finds it only leading to her destruction. Portman has always been very capable of portraying graceful, gentle female roles, but this role demanded a darker, more twisted character than she normally performs. The film itself is disturbing and this is in large part the result of Portman's powerful performance. Mila Kunis as Lily does a satisfactory job, but compared to Portman, it isn't nearly as compelling. Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy commands respect on the screen, even if his character is rather advantageous and manipulative as an artistic director.
Overall, the acting ensemble does a good job and Aronofsky gets the best from his talent. At times, the jerky camera work can seem irritating, but ultimately, it adds to the jarring nature of the film. Black Swan explores what happens to the human soul when it chases perfection, while denying the reality that we are flawed human beings. The search for perfection can be fatal, whether it be through suicide or through various things that lead to untimely deaths. As we see in Black Swan, our minds can work against ourselves in search of that perfection.
Despite the heavy nature of the film, there were a few quick comedic jabs in the script, which helped to alleviate the dark psychological tension and give the audience a chance to breath. Aronofsky is a talented filmmaker, but it takes a certain mental preparation before viewing his films, as they are not pieces of entertainment, but instead artistic statements. Amongst all of the trash that comes out of Hollywood today and claims to be artistic, Black Swan, stands out as true filmmaking art, albeit dark and disturbing art.
Make no mistake; this is a disturbing film on a variety of levels. It will not be for everyone, but Aronofsky's films rarely are for everyone. There is a reason why he is not regarded as a mainstream filmmaker, nor do I believe he strives or aspires to be one.
Rating: 4.5/5 Sour Grapes