I used to think it’d be impossible to watch a movie about madness and that it’d be portrayed so well that I would nearly lose my own mind during the course of the film. That’s the beauty of Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN; the slow burn nature of the film lets the psychological breakdown of the main character sneak its way naturally into the brain until it begins to bend and twist reality until you can’t tell the difference and before you know it the credits are rolling. That’s exactly what happened to me and it took me quite some time to gather myself and leave the theater. Aronofsky’s vision of a ballet dancer’s fragile mind is exceedingly brilliant and incredibly haunting.
BLACK SWAN is the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a quiet ballet dancer obsessed with perfection that is thrust into the lead role of her company’s production of Swan Lake. Her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is confident in her ability to play the white swan because of her shy reclusive personality, but wants to push her into discovering her more seductive and sexy side to portray the role of the black swan. The pressure of the role starts to take its toll even when she tries to befriend her rival Lily (Mila Kunis); until she becomes convinced she wants to take the role from her. Nina’s mental health deteriorates rapidly and threatens to destroy her and everything she’s worked for.
Aronofsky has put together a mentally exhausting psychological nightmare that really tested my own ability to decipher what was real and what wasn’t and I couldn’t have been happier to take the stroll down that path. Through the first half of the film I was a little worried that the payoff in the last acts of the film wouldn’t justify the relatively slow pace at the beginning only to have those doubts be totally shattered. Aronofsky has carried over the look and feel from THE WRESTLER with the handheld camera work that follows the action very closely and has a very grainy looking picture.
We get to know Portman’s character very intimately so there’s very little mystery to her arc as a character, but what we learn about the other characters like Thomas and Lily is just enough to make assumptions but their intentions are always in question and mysterious because we too have to question their motives from the point of view of Nina’s mind. Her descent into madness is perfectly done due to Portman’s terrific performance; her portrayal of a dancer striving for perfection has made her movements on the dance floor so stiff and mechanical that her struggle to ‘let go’ feels strained and maddening. The script isn’t ground breaking but Portman, Kunis and Cassel take the relatively simple script and breath an incredible amount of life into the film. Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey both have limited roles but perform each of them admirably.
It’d be easy to talk for hours about all the subtle visuals used throughout the film designed to make you question your own mind and rather or not you actually saw something happen. So much of the film is masterfully crafted to make you experience Nina’s mental deterioration right along with her and it works astoundingly well. The music is beautiful and gives the film a very grand operatic feel and other times where it’s very sexy and tense but always rounding out the film perfectly.
I have very few problems with the film aside from not feeling like I fully connected with Nina’s emotional journey. There were times I felt for her character but just not as deeply as I’d of liked, but I did connect fully with her mental struggle which makes it possible to overlook the minor flaws I had with the beginning pacing and my emotional disconnect. Towards the end there were some minor CGI hiccups; all of them very brief but still effective in the way they were used.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think BLACK SWAN stood at the top of 2010′s elite group of films. The truth is that Aronofsky has put together a beautiful piece of cinema that is engaging, powerful and chilling. You’d be hard pressed to find a film that combines so many elements of drama, horror with the beauty of classical cinema wrapped in a psychological thriller. BLACK SWAN is a maddening journey through an exhausting psychological nightmare and it’s never been so delightful to endure.