It’s a rare feat to have an independent film achieve both critical acclaim and box office success. Sure, it can be argued that the average independent film does not need to be a success at the box office. Rarely are these big-budget pictures, eschewing high costs for creative freedom. Still, every director drools over the thought of creating the exact movie they wanted to make and having the box office show a major success. With Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan we do see the independent film world achieving major box office success. Shot for $13 million, the film has earned $83 million already and should certainly gain steam with the recent Oscar nominations for best movie, director, and best actress. Critical success… Box office hit… So one must ask what the Ninjas would think of such a film. Our answer… quite simply it was brilliant.
“Quite simply”, perhaps the worst choice of words I could use to describe this film. There is nothing simple about it. We are introduced to Nina (Natalie Portman), an aspiring ballet dancer striving for her first chance at the lead role in a major production. Nina seems to have all of the talents in the world. She is flawless and precise. She is in complete control of her body. According to Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who is both the producer and casting director, control could be Nina’s greatest flaw. He plans to do “Swan Lake” and, in order to be the Swan Queen, the dancer must be able to embrace both sides of the role. Clearly Nina can be the white swan, virginal, demure, and precise. But the black swan is sexual prowess, rawness, and passion, three things not associated with control. To become the black swan Nina must find a way to embrace traits that she does not possess, to lose control. We soon see that Nina is barely holding on to her own sanity, that her control may be a lie. She is nearing a total mental breakdown. We also know why. Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), was a dancer herself but turned her back on the ballet to have Nina. Nina’s father is no longer in the picture. Erica keeps Nina trapped at 12 years old. Her bedroom is pink and fluffy bunny everything. Stuffed animals adorn every corner. Every night Nina falls asleep to the sound of her wind up music box from atop her dresser. Nina cannot become the black swan as traits the swan possesses flies in the face of everything Erica allows Nina to be. Still, Erica is constantly pushing Nina to be all she can, at least in word only. Now enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer from San Francisco who, as Thomas sees it, embodies raw beauty and talent. Lily is the black swan. Thomas decides to give Nina a shot as the Swan Queen. Now Nina must learn to be both Nina and Lily, both white swan and black swan, in total control yet completely uninhibited. As the bond between Nina and Lily grows, the black swan draws Nina closer, and the boundaries between her reality and illusion become far less defined.
It is rare that a director can truly capture madness, despair, and desire all at the same time. Aronofsky does this and so much more. A ballet setting would seem to be an odd choice for such a work but, upon further review, it was precisely the setting needed. A dancer must tell a story solely by their movement. A simple change of posture can express an entirely different emotion. In order to become one of the finest in the art, that dancer must then completely give themselves away to the dance. They need to completely become what they are trying to portray. There are no words spoken to enhance their emotion, only their movements. Thus, whatever emotional baggage that dancer carries would certainly affect how well the dancer could become something they are not. How can one give themselves away figuratively when they don’t have control of themselves in reality? This is the question Aronofsky poses, one that is not easily answered.
Casting is one of this film’s strongest points. You have heard the press regarding Portman’s performance. What you’ve heard is no exaggeration. If Portman does not win the Oscar for this role it would be an absolute crime. She is in every scene and you will not be able to take your eyes off her. You will feel the pain she feels at trying to be everything she wants to be, her mother wants her to be…. and the pity for her knowing that it will destroy her should she attain it. Honestly, I don’t know where Portman can go from here. It is truly some of the most brilliant actings I have ever seen. Kunis also gives a strong performance. In most films, she would have stood out above the rest. Sadly, all of her scenes were with Portman. As a result, you will follow Portman through their scenes together, missing any of the nuances Kunis has given to Lily. Of special note was Barbara Hershey as Erica. She embodied the doting co-dependant parent so completely that you felt sorry for her as well as loathing her at the same time.
Early on the camera work seems a little unsettling. There are multiple shots spinning around Nina as she is dancing. Hand-held cameras are used to follow Nina as she is rushing off to the ballet company. In retrospect, these shots are intended to be jarring. We see how harried Nina truly is. She is a bundle of nerves throwing everything she has into her dance, trying to maintain control even though that is her biggest obstacle in becoming the black swan. As you come to feel the pain Nina is feeling, the cinematography seems well suited for the actions on screen. As Nina loses control shots become faster, flashier. Nina’s memories of reality become nothing but brief snapshots between delusions. Aronofksy chooses to have the camera act much the same way, catching brief snapshots of reality while showing longer gazes into madness.
Aronofsky has crafted a film that leaves you looking back and wondering what was real. You’ve seen the trailers. Nina appears to be turning into a black swan, literally. She has a rash on her right shoulder blade from which a dark quill is pulled. You’ve seen her stretch her winged arms out as if ready to fly. You have also heard the stories of the famous scene between Portman and Kunis, and yes, if you see the film you will see all of these things… from a certain point of view. Black Swan is a brilliant psycho-sexual thriller. You will see the world through the eyes of Nina. You will feel the black swan as it slowly envelops her. But what you are given are images from one who is slowly losing grip on all reality. Nina believes all of these events are real. And to the viewer, they may seem real, but Aronofsky has created a vision with so many levels that reality is more than just blurred. A true masterpiece is one the viewer thinks back upon and ponders. This film is that and so much more. As Nina gives herself to the swan you will also feel yourself doing so. You will feel her joy. You will feel her pain. You will feel her passion. You will feel her lust. You too will know the black swan… and you will want to spend many hours tearing apart the multiple layers of this brilliant work. That is the mark of a true masterpiece.