Black Swan Retrospective Review
Black Swan is a psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin. It stars Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. There will be some spoilers but the film has been out for awhile. I rewatched this film in anticipation of Aronofsky's new film, mother!.
The Story/The Direction:
The story tells the story of Nina (Portman) who is a ballerina in a New York City company that is putting together a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. This ballet needs a ballerina to play the pure and innocent White Swan, which Nina is perfect for, and the dark and sensual Black Swan, which seem to be better embodied by Lily (Kunis). Nina becomes committed to compete for the part and she starts to lose her grip on reality.
Aronofsky has always been able to show characters on a quest similar to that of the Icarus myth, flying too close to the sun and failing. In this film's case, Nina's attempt to reach perfection but lose her mind in the process. You see this theme similarly in Aronofsky's prior films of The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi. In those films, he also dealt with intense topics such as addiction and death. Here, he deals with the mental disorder schizophrenia. There is some great cinematography in this film that keep you engrossed the entire time. You don't know what's real or just in Nina's mind. This is supported by a fantastic score by Clint Mansell. He does intertwine Tchaikovsky's original pieces but he still adds his own music that create this tense and ominous sound. This film is the fifth consecutive collaboration between Aronofsky and Mansell. In addition, this film plays with ideas of duality in Nina similar to that of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The supporting cast of Kunis, Cassell, and Ryder is great but the obvious standout is Natalie Portman. She does a fantastic job playing a dual character both in Nina and the swans. Nina develops from the White Swan into the Black Swan. She matures and leaves her childhood behind. This process is slow, painful, and daunting and the audience is there for every step of the way. In the beginning, all Nina wants is perfection hitting each mark with precision. This is the White Swan but as Thomas (Cassell) tells her, this is only half the battle and "perfections ometimes isn't about control, but rather about losing yourself." He wants her to be impulsive and independent instead of only doing what she is told to a tee. Her first obstacle is her mother as she tries to keep Lily as a child forever. Nina is at least in her twenties and her room in her mother's home is decorated as if she was ten. Nina knows that she cannot live like this forever and the Black Swan starts to come out. She meets Lily who is the complete opposite from her. She is more about impulsive actions on and off the stage. Nina's subconscious/Aronofsky takes Lily and applies her to the entity of the emerging Black Swan, so much so Nina sees her own face in Lily's body. This allows her to stand up to her mother. When she brings Lily home after a night out, she stands up to her mother and "Lily" is not even acknowledged. This is Nina opening her mind to the Black Swan and allows the entity to grow more inside of Nina. Eventually, Nina faces her second obstacle: herself.
After messing up in the first act of the show, she finds Lily in her room preparing herself to be the Black Swan. Nina, not willing to give up the role, stabs her. This allows for her to fully transform into the Black Swan and out on the performance of a lifetime. When she returns to the room after, she discovers that Lily was never there and that she stabbed herself, her White Swan half. The only person in her way in the end was herself. Her Black Swan side was in a war with her White Swan side as Dr. Jekyll was with Mr. Hyde. Like Jekyll, the winner in the battle was the inner dark side. She is further shown to being exactly a representative of Icarus as she is right next to a sun before she makes her final jump. Though she was able to dance perfectly, she lost her mind and body in the process.
While I understand that Aronofsky is trying to keep what's real and what's not a mystery, some of uncertainty is not fully answered by the end of the film. In addition, I was not the biggest fan of the Thomas character. He essentially was using sexual assault as "motivation," and instruction for his dancers. This was the thing that started Nina down her journey of becoming the Black Swan. While I get the fact that this character was not meant to be a hero of any sort, the film didn't make him a villian either.
The story of Nina shows that attempting to be perfect in one aspect can come at the sacrifices of others. Whether it's being perfect in the light or in the dark, something with have to give. This film is absolutely gripping and such a great film to rewatch. It further emphasizes why Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors. The film went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing) and Portman won for her performance. I'd watch this film again and again. If his new film, mother!, is anywhere near as good, I'll be happy.
Rating: 4.5/5.0 bowties
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