Fri 10 Dec 2010
Crazy is the first word that comes to mind, both during and after watching director Darren Aronofsky’s heavily touted “Black Swan”. This is partially because of the questionable mental status of the main character but also because I seem to be in the minority among critics on the effectiveness of the film (more on that later).
Mirroring the ballet ‘Swan Lake’ that is being produced in the story, the film follows aspiring lead ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman), as she prepares for her first feature stage performance. I use the term ‘mirroring’ quite specifically, as mirrors play a key role in showcasing Nina’s struggles with her identity and perception of reality. And like the Swan Queen herself, Portman’s own career has been more about being perceived as the White Swan, all perfect and controlled, rather than the Black Swan, which embraces the chaos and loses itself to temptation.
It is in the character study that transcends the film itself and enters into the actresses’ own career that Aronofsky and company succeed. This is the kind of complex role we’ve been expecting Portman to deliver since seeing her burst into the cinematic world in “The Professional” over 15 years ago. While still far more convincing as the refined and demure half of the character, the glimpses we get towards the murkier elements of the soul will surely propel Portman onto the short list for 2010′s Best Actress.
The other actors in the film also shine; with Barbara Hershey playing the controlling mother living her life through her daughter’s, Vincent Cassell being the slimy ballet director who doesn’t mind seducing the talent as long as it helps him and their performance and, most notably, Mila Kunis as Nina’s rival, Lily. Kunis shows that there’s more than bubble gum roles open to her from this point, essentially being Portman’s doppelganger in the film.
And as Portman’s character continues to psychologically unravel, the physical similarities between Lily, Nina, and her mother get an extra boost from the CGI department as Nina begins to see versions of herself everywhere. These elements are truly creepy but although they work in small doses, it’s here that everything begins to come apart.
The ballet is metaphor for the struggle between good and evil, within the film it is the struggle between sane and insane for Portman. It’s obvious what parallels the film makers are trying to draw but rather than keeping everything subtle, every cinematic element is cranked to 11.
Clint Mansell’s score becomes accordingly dark and quasi-schizophrenic but the sheer volume is punched up to excess and overpowers some of the scenes, rather than underscoring them. At the same time, the need to showcase Nina’s mental instability builds to a crescendo of overblown proportions, utilizing a host of dreams and hallucinations that completely shift the film’s genre and only serve to break our connection with the characters. This, in turn, is echoed by the editing which becomes a game of cat and mouse, as the goal is apparently to confuse our senses to the point of not being sure which events are real and which are in Nina’s head.
So while I commend Aronofsky for crossing boundaries most filmmakers would have set for themselves and delivering on the vision he wanted to create, he goes too far for my taste. Instead of subtly playing with the fantasy/psychological elements, he assaults as many senses as possible at once and those who paid for a ballet-centric drama are almost getting a horror film, when all is said and done.
I credit his boldness, but I think some restraint would have better served the story and, unfortunately, it is the final act which lands “Black Swan” at a 3.5 out of 5. That’s lower than I expected given Aronofky’s track record and the first 90 minutes of the film but still makes this worthy of a recommendation to both fans of his work, and psychological thrillers in general. (How do you like that? Even my review is schizophrenic.)