Title: Black Swan
Genre: Pyschological Drama
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell
Director: Darren Aronofsky
I often enter a film with certain expectations of what it should deliver, but its here that I find myself somewhat in the dark. My hopes for a return to form for a director that has disappointed on too many occasions is certainly present, but a film about ballet? Is this to be a re-imagining of “The Wrestler?” A film with heart but with too little originality to the script to be anything more than a mild success? With the popularity of ballet in decline, the director, Thomas LeRoy (Cassell), decides on a re-imagining of the done-to-death “Swan Lake,” but take a bold new interpretation of the classic tale; the woman imprisoned in a beautiful white swan and requiring true love to be set free, but her prince is seduced by her evil twin, the black swan, and when she learns of her fate kills herself. It is Nina Sayers (Portman) who is picked for the role of both the White and the Black, but her innocent and child-like demeanour at the hands of her overbearing mother needs to be set free so as to portray the evil and seductive counterpart. As the strains of a demanding teacher and pressure from the ambiguously intentioned Lily (Kunis) take its toll on her, her desire to release her inner darkness comes to fruition and her mind fragments into two.
It still feels distinctive to his own work, drawing on lessons learnt from past endeavours and bringing in new elements to form his piece. The darkness of addiction from 'Requiem' and the dangers of obsession lifted from his debut work in 'Pi' subtly rear their head, but none feels more prominent than his work with 'The Wrestler,' particularly in those crucial opening moments. For the second time he has succeeded in taking a misunderstood art form and revealing it, warts and all, without an understanding of the topic being required in order to appreciate it, merely a respect for the art form. The world of a ballet dancer can be more bloody than the Victorian façade of beauty would have you believe, with more strength and endurance being required than they are often accredited for; the punishing rehearsals doing its damage to the human body (not in the least the toes which are hardly designed to support the entirety of your weight) and that constant vain struggle for perfection in both performance and appearance taking its toll on both a performers physical and mental endurance, with each tiny imperfection becoming magnified within the performers mind.
The major complaint I have about the film is precisely how long it took for everything to finally unfold; there's the introduction that had a lot of information to convey, and there can be no real argument against that in itself given its requirement in the story, but the creating and setting of Portman's innocent 'white swan' is bludgeoned into you for such a long time that she becomes infuriating to watch. There is no steady decline into madness which I so longed for; subtle hints of her slowly changing disposition as the film proceeded, but instead a rather abrupt and sudden 'snap' moment where all grasp on reality collapses like a tower of cards. Which is to say absolutely nothing bad against the young actress herself, whose respect I have for her has risen beyond measure since the atrocities of the Star Wars trilogy and more lacklustre performances than impressive ones, but here eventually manages to show here just how far she has come. Much can be said for the rest of the casting as well, each performer fitting into their role and delivering on what was required of them, if only Ryder's twisted performance as the retiring dancer, Beth, going beyond expectations for her all too brief screen time.
But none of these performances really took a hold until the final act; the first half spent setting the scene and then the middle section convincing you that it did in fact all have a point, and that after that horrifically slow start, and a few occasional suggestions that this was going to end up being the second time a film would make me angry at being just a little too close to a piece by the director “Satoshi Kon” (first with Inception's 'Ariadne' arriving from his film “Paprika,” and here the start of her madness bearing strong resemblance to his “Perfect Blue,” though I should point out this ended up feeling more coincidental than intentional) but as things proceed into the final act things take on an entirely new atmosphere, reaching into the depths of 'Argento-esque' horror as her world literally comes crashing down around her.
It is for this that the wait becomes worthwhile as Aronofsky proves he isn't withering away as just another faceless big budget director; that his early success wasn't just a flash of brilliance in an otherwise somewhat unremarkable career. There is that constant confusion of trying to piece together the fragments of her dissociated personality as a result of her so desiring to embrace and portray both the black and white, battling internally for domination of her role; that determination that drives her beyond the brink of madness and takes the viewer along for the ride, twisting and turning and never yielding to expectations. I've followed Aronofksy's career adamantly since I first discovered him, and despite my preconceptions that his work has steadily been in decline for the past decade, this is the film to break that streak and is probably his finest work since “Requiem for a Dream” all those years ago.