Darren Aronofsky does not have a medium setting. However one might feel about any of his films – from the agitated anti-drug parable Requiem for a Dream to the time-bending metaphysical sci-fi mini-epic The Fountain to working-man’s tragedy The Wrestler – it’s difficult to argue that he holds back in any respect. Black Swan acts as a sort of greatest-hits of Aronofsky’s pet themes – contorted bodies (Requiem), pathological obsession (Pi), and the transformational/destructive properties of the performing arts (Wrestler), but in execution it takes a bold leap in a different direction, throwing caution to the wind and delivering an over-the-top, consistently heightened, and gloriously insane film that isn’t afraid to skirt with the ridiculous in order to engage with its high-art milieu and troubled central figure.
That figure is Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina working under the sometimes-lecherous, sometimes-fatherly watch of the company’s director, played by Vincent Cassel. Cassel is mounting a spartan new version of Swan Lake, and needs a fresh face to stun audiences and investors alike, both having grown tired of the company’s long-standing leading lady (Winona Ryder). As auditions begin, the ever-studious (if clearly unstable) Nina emerges as a possible front-runner, but only if she can demonstrate to Cassel that she can embody the White Swan and the Black Swan, the opposite emblems of goodness and deviousness that power the opera’s narrative. Enter a liberated ingenue (Mila Kunis), who, along with the incessant pestering of Nina’s overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), threatens to derail not only her chances of leading the production but of even keeping her sanity intact.
Black Swan – an over-the-top, consistently heightened, and gloriously insane film
Both a deeply Freudian melodrama and a body-horror nightmare, Black Swan is anything but subtle. It delights not exactly in surprising the audience with narrative twists – within the first five minutes, there isn’t much guesswork as to where this is all headed – but it just how far over the top Aronofsky is willing to push his performers and material. Where The Wrestler distanced itself from wrestling’s theatricality in order to provide a lucid behind-the-scenes feel, Black Swan embraces ballet’s inherent sense of distortion and weds it to the pressures of performance; the dividing line between subject and performer is erased. The sickening sound effects and bodily contortions that litter the movie are equally likely to arise from a landing gone wrong as they are from Nina’s tortured visions.
In a perfectly cast role, Portman dominates and drives the film, keeping pace with Aronofsky’s demented energy. Nina is sympathetic, but also fickle, petulant, and deeply disturbed, and it’s difficult to imagine another young actress who could have sold the part so unselfconsciously. It’s as tailor-made to her fussy demeanor and diminutive physique as The Wrestler‘s Randy was for Mickey Rourke’s mush-mouthed charm and battle scars. The rest of the cast is similarly fitting but naturally plays second fiddle: Cassel and Kunis are well within their wheelhouses playing slimy and sleek, respectively, while Hershey, always a welcome presence, has the somewhat thankless role of the meddling stage mom, but effortlessly develops an intimate sense both or rivalry and kinship with her troubled daughter.
In keeping Black Swan deeply unironic and broadly executed, Aronofsky risked alienating the critics who came on board for the more “tasteful” Wrestler after the excesses of his more divisive earlier films, especially the ambitious Fountain. Those that did were missing the point and the sheer enjoyment of a director firing on all cylinders. It’s garish, exciting, and destined and adored by midnight-movie misfits all these years later, even if some high-minded critical gatekeepers missed the point and are still shaking their heads at its straightforward commitment to its own roaring psychosis.