Year Released: 2010
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
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Imagine a hall of mirrors: the distorted reflections, the strange angles. What most disorients—and frightens—anyone caught in such an attraction is the way in which seeing an exaggerated version of oneself points out some fundamental truths one is most often able to ignore. Such is the effect of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, a study on obsession told through the lens of an ambitious woman launching headlong into an Ahab-like quest for perfection. The difference here is that the unattainable in this picture doesn’t come in the form of a whale, but rather a swan—a black one.
Full disclosure: I do not count myself among Darren Aronofsky’s most avid fans. The statements herein are thus from the perspective of someone who finds that his visually arresting early efforts lack depth, and was pleasantly surprised when Aronofsky bucked this trend in 2008’s The Wrestler, far and away his best film to date. Black Swan, it seems, situates itself in between these two extremes by combining the stripped-down sensibilities of his most recent picture with the frenetic pacing of his first two. As regards The Wrestler, the footage here is just as grainy, the protagonist in just as strange and rarefied a profession. Oddly—or perhaps not—this feature, which can quite accurately be called a companion piece to its predecessor, was originally envisioned as being part of the same film. But where The Wrestler portrays a sort of brotherhood of the downtrodden, Black Swan gives us a look at the decidedly more cut-throat environment that is a renowned ballet company through the lens of Nina, an up-and-coming ballerina chosen to play the dual role of the Swan Queen/Black Swan in a new production of Swan Lake. Nina embodies the former—her dancing is precise, technique-oriented, and controlled—but the latter is out of her depth. Enter Lilly, the Dionysus to Nina’s Apollo. She’s everything Nina isn’t: outwardly passionate, relaxed, unrestrained. In short, the perfect candidate to replace Nina should she fail to embody the Black Swan. High art never looked so ruthless.
“I just want to be perfect,” Nina says in what amounts to her manifesto, and herein lies the problem: as long as she remains herself, perfection will remain beyond her grasp. To become the Black Swan, Nina must let go of—or destroy—the person she is. This loss of the self is central to the film. Black Swan is first and foremost an extremely detailed depiction of Nina’s metamorphosis, one that manifests itself as much physically (often in sickening detail) as it does mentally. Unsurprisingly, this transformation comes at a heavy price to both Nina and everyone around her; so caught up in this maelstrom of ambition is she that Nina never takes pause long enough to wonder whether it’s worth it. That these events render her incapable of reflection despite being constantly surrounded by mirrors is a subtly ironic note in an otherwise too-explicit film.
Black Swan is unafraid to take on heady themes—doubling, the quest for perfection—but its treatment of them is sometimes lacking. Take, for instance, Nina’s duality as seen through both herself and Lilly: if Nina wears white in a scene, Lilly almost certainly wears black. This is muddled by the fact that, as Nina turns closer toward the dark side (for lack of a better term), our suspicion of Lilly isn’t meant to wane; seeing Nina for who she truly is doesn’t provide the same clarity for her counterpart. (That Nina sees Lilly’s face in her own, oh, a dozen or so times doesn’t help.) Too, the film’s psychodrama, more hokey than hallucinatory, is often of the smoke and mirrors variety more at home in slasher films, and the visual torments we’re treated to—self-inflicted scratches, bloody fingernails, and webbed toes among them—are more easily explained by neurotic habits and sleep deprivation than by a doppelganger. By the time her mother’s paintings start talking, it’s clear that most of Nina’s problems exist solely in her mind. This would work well if it weren’t for the fact that Black Swan seems to suggest the opposite—that these haunting visions are all too real. A notable exception to these criticisms is Clint Mansell’s music: the longtime Aronofsky collaborator has composed a score as refined as it is foreboding, and one whose string-laden arrangements are conducive to the brooding atmosphere Black Swan works hard to create.
Natalie Portman, in what amounts to an almost dual role as the two competing halves of a fractured whole, is exceptional to say the least. (An Oscar nomination would be neither unexpected nor undeserved). Too, Vincent Cassel is in his element as the delightfully creepy Thomas Leroy, and Mila Kunis—better known for lighter fare—embodies Lilly surprisingly well. And yet spending so much time praising the all-around fine performances in this film speaks to one of its flaws: it’s anchored more by acting and cinematography than by the underlying sense of dread it’s meant to be.
Black Swan is a film whose initial surprises gradually morph into a variation on a familiar theme. Its fixation on mirrors notwithstanding, the film shows us little we don’t already know. And though it may sound odd, there’s something unique at work here—it’s as if Aronofsky and company are so sincere in their undertaking that occasional notes of otherworldliness occur throughout Black Swan. It’s just a shame that such moments mostly serve as a reminder of what this film could have been, rather than the film it is.
Posted on November 15, 2010 in Reviews by Michael Nordine
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