Directed by Darren Aronofsky (‘Requiem for a Dream’ (2000)), ‘Black Swan’ is an ambitious psychological horror film promising to submerge the viewer into the world of classical ballet, game of sexual seduction and pure psychological delirium, but has it delivered?
In ‘Black Swan’, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballet dancer in a respected dance company headed by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Leroy is to stage a new production of ‘Swan Lake’, and chooses Nina as his Swan Queen. Although Leroy is sure that Nina can dance the beautiful, fragile and innocent White Swan, he is not convinced that she can dance the Black Swan, who is a confident, strong, seductive and lustful ‘twin’ of the White Swan. There is also another ballerina in the company, named Lily (Mila Kunis), who seems to fit the Black Swan image perfectly. She is more in-tune with her sensual nature and is more relaxed on stage than Nina. There is also Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), a retiring ballerina, who is both the source of Nina’s inspiration and a warning for her. As Nina’s debut in ‘Swan Lake’ approaches, Nina’s domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) exert more and more pressure on her, and Nina’s acquaintance with Lily produces some unexpected results, leading to Nina’s rapid physical and psychological breakdown/metamorphosis.
Firstly, it is interesting to explore the film’s main themes. ‘Black Swan’ portrays the devastating effects that immense pressure and high expectations can have on an individual. The heroine in ‘Black Swan’ seems to undergo a psychological ‘burn out’. Tracy states that a burnout is ‘a general wearing out or alienation from the pressures of work’. High levels of stress and perfectionism can cause such a state, and in some cases it can result in the individual losing their ‘sense of reality’, sustaining a nervous breakdown and even becoming schizophrenic. This is Nina’s diagnosis as she starts to experience vivid auditory and visionary hallucinations followed by instances of paranoia (here one can draw parallels with Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965)). The diagnosis of a dual personality disorder is also not ruled out, because Nina seems to switch from one personality to another during her performance in ‘Swan Lake’.
Another dominant theme in this film is more on the symbolic side. This is the idea of an ‘evil twin’, an antagonist with ‘radically inverted moralities’ to the main character, but usually resembling the main character physically. This is not an original or new idea, and plenty of literature has explored it already – from RL Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide’ to Dostoevsky’s poem ‘The Double’. In ‘Black Swan’, there are occasions where Nina sees her doppelganger. The ancient belief is that seeing one’s doppelganger is inevitably followed by some tragedy or misfortune, and is generally considered to be a bad sign. The role of the ‘evil twin’ in this film is played by Lily, who resembles Nina physically, but is very different from her on a personal level. As the film progresses, however, Nina starts to share the attributes of her twin more and more, and this psychological process is completed upon her full physical and mental metamorphosis. Hence, the predominant use of mirrors throughout the film, emphasising the duality of a person and the mirage of perceived reality. At some point during the film, the evil twin is also murdered, as it often happens in the ‘evil-twin’ stories, where darkness or light takes control over the counterpart. More often than not, however, evil twins are simply unmasked or banished, reminiscing Dumas’s novel ‘The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later’ part three ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.
However, despite these exhilarating themes, ‘Black Swan’ fails to achieve the standard of a great movie. As with ‘The Fountain’ (2006), Aronofsky sets his goals too high, and fails to meet the expectations. The director wants to address many issues with one film: commitment, obsession, professional and personal rivalry, mental health, etc., and desires his film to be too many things, i.e., ‘Black Swan’ is supposed to be a combination of a psychological thriller, drama and horror. By chasing various things, Aronofsky ends up nowhere, losing a lot of substance and a chance to forge emotional connections with his audience along the way. ‘Black Swan’ is emotionally “empty”, and, when the credits finally roll out, one has this feeling that something great was missing from the movie, and awaits for some Part II to begin. In short, Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ and ‘The Fountain’ both try to impress on psychological/philosophical levels, but their ambitious nature is the only thing that deserves the ovation. In both films, what the audience observes is the beginning and the end, with the middle – the very substance of the film – seemingly cut out. One way in which the film might have acquired some substantial meaning and emotion was by incorporating David, ‘the Prince’, more into the story. While Leroy does a good job of a “dark horse” in pursuit of an innocent victim, his interactions with Nina act more as an accessory, rather than the main part of the story. It would have made greater sense for David to fall in love with Nina, only to be seduced by Lily. That way, Nina’s life would mirror the ‘Swan Lake’ ballet story, making her hallucinatory downfall even more pronounced.
Interestingly also, both in ‘Black Swan’ and in ‘The Fountain’, the main characters are full of ambition and hope, but achieve their aim only at the too high a cost. In ‘Black Swan’, Nina strives to be the perfect success, but loses her sanity as a result; while in the ‘The Fountain’, the main character, full of hope for eternal life, reaches his aim by drinking from the Fountain of Life, only to be destroyed by the Tree of Life. The same thing, incidentally, happens in Aronofsky’s ‘Requiem for a Dream’. There, the heroine achieves her aim of becoming slimmer, but only at the expense of turning into a drug addict.
Moreover, realism does not seem to be Aronofsky’s stronger points. In ‘Black Swan‘, ballerinas fall during live performances and they are hailed as a success; and ballerinas are allowed to have huge tattoos over visible parts of their bodies; not to mention another dozen or so ballet inconsistencies.
Another negative aspect of ‘Black Swan’ is Natalie Portman. Setting aside the fact that Portman does not look like a ballerina at all (she is too short and looks ‘stiff’), Portman performs the role of a ballerina without the required grace or passion for the profession, but, probably, only a person involved in the world of classical ballet can spot the difference. Portman looks like she only belongs on the set of ‘No Strings Attached’ (2011) or maybe even joining her friend Kunis on the set of ‘Friends with Benefits’ (2011); the word ‘fake’ is, unfortunately, written all over her skilful performance. It neither rings genuine nor true. On the positive note, however, other actors’ performances in ‘Black Swan’ are excellent. Barbara Hershey in her role of Erica Sayers, Nina’s mother, shines, as does Winona Ryder in the role of Beth Macintyre. The new-comer Kunis also does a very good portrayal of Lily, Nina’s rival. Vincent Cassel’s performance deserves special admiration. Cassel portrays Thomas Leroy very convincingly, with just the right portions of charm, ruthlessness and masculinity. Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music, borrowed by Aronofsky, is another thing which carries this film to a finishing line. Clint Mansell’s score composed for the film is also very good, fitting into the brooding atmosphere of the picture perfectly.
Overall, ‘Black Swan’ is an entertaining thriller full of psychological and symbolic complexities. However, copying characters and ideas shamefully from ‘Perfect Blue‘ (1997), and drawing more than just inspiration from Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ and Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ (1977), it is clear that Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan‘ is very far from being a unique or a worthy-of-attention movie. The film is underwhelming in its premise, and disappointing in its overall presentation. The conclusion is that Aronofsky should stick to his “budget” productions (in the spirit of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘The Fountain’), because he is clearly unable as of yet to produce originality or master-class on a grand scale. 7/10