Perfection, a lofty goal. I’ve long felt that perfection is very-much subjective. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” But after seeing the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my take on perfection. Perhaps true perfection is even more ambiguous, transcending the corporeal subjective and objective, perfect whether you believe it or not. The pursuit of perfection is at the heart of Aronofsky’s latest, Black Swan.
Starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a featured ballerina with a prestigious New York ballet company, who dreams of playing the Swan Queen in the upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. When Beth (Winona Ryder), the reigning Prima Ballerina, is unceremoniously ushered into early retirement by artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina’s dream seems within her grasp. But the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sultry new soloist, threatens Nina’s chances.
In spite of Thomas’ belief that Nina could, indeed, play the perfect white swan, the Swan Queen is dual roles, requiring the dancer to play both the white and black swans. And he doubts Nina will be able to transform from the pure, virginal white swan into the sensual, seductive black swan, a role Lily seems to naturally personify. Determined, Nina’s dedication to perfection turns into all-consuming obsession, leaving her with a tenuous grasp of reality as the lines between life and art begin to blur.
With Black Swan, Aronofsky delivers a gorgeous, grandiose, Grand Guignol thriller, akin to classic Polanski films like Repulsion and The Tenant. Aronofsky applies familiar elements, echoed in Polanski’s films–paranoia, duality and the doubling/splitting of a character–to the baroque world of ballet, to brilliant effect.
Portman is disarming as Nina, deftly portraying both the tortured naif, striving so desperately for perfection, and her primal, polar shadow-self (Jungian archetypes being another staple of classic thrillers in general). Watching Nina’s transformation from frigid, waifish, childlike innocent to unfettered, ethereal femme fatale is thrilling and at times terrifying. Portman’s performance is award-worthy. At the very least she should garner some nominations.
Of course, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Barbara Hershey is equally unsettling as Erica, Nina’s overbearing mother. A former ballerina herself, Erica is a classic example of a stage-mother trying to live vicariously through her child. Hershey offers a subtle slow-burn reveal of the controlling matriarch. As things progress, her June Cleaver exterior melts away, revealing Erica’s true, domineering nature, one-part Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), two-parts Margaret White (Carrie). Hershey manages to keep Erica grounded in the same realm as the rest of the film, without cranking the crazy up to eleven a la Piper Laurie as Margaret White, but she could definitely give Piper a run for her money.
Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis provide a wonderfully lustful one-two punch. Cassel presents Thomas’ lecherous goading of Nina in such a charming way that it’s impossible not to like him, even if his provocation, which is probably 90% a desire to get the best performance out of Nina, is still 10% a desire to get Nina out of her tights. In a film dealing heavily with duality and dichotomy, Kunis’ rebelliously hedonistic Lily is the pitch-perfect yin to Nina’s yang, spurring Nina on to examine her own carnal desires and unleash her dark side.
Frequently my favorite part of Aronofsky’s films, once again Clint Mansell‘s score is captivating as ever. Born from elements of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and taken to a wonderfully unsettling, dark extreme, the score permeates the film with sublime dread. And of course, the visuals are astounding. Matthew Libatique‘s cinematography puts you in the middle of the amazing theatricality. His camera doesn’t just capture the action, it becomes a member of the company, falling right on the heels of the dancers. The camera moves to and fro within the choreography so seamlessly. During some of the rehearsal scenes especially, the way the camera moves around the room, between two mirrors and the dancers, it’s a ballet in and of itself. The theatricality of it all, the sights, the sounds, the performances, brings to mind the work of Eugene Berman (high drama and the melancholic sublime) and should be experienced on the big screen.
Historically, I’m not a huge fan of Aronofsky’s films. While I did thoroughly enjoy The Wrestler, the rest of his films never really did much for me. The Fountain was disappointing. I was inundated by the bleakness of Requiem for a Dream, with the one consolation being Ellen Burstyn’s heartbreaking performance. And Pi was just not my cup of tea; the fact that the title of the film is a reference to a numerical value should have told me that it wasn’t a film for me. But with Black Swan, as far as I’m concerned, Aronofsky did no wrong. He’s crafted a brilliant, beautiful, dark psychological thriller, that is, in a word: perfect.