Preparing for a Darren Aronofsky feature is sort of like preparing for a break up or a funeral. That’s not to say that every last Aronofsky tale is a saga of desolation or exhausting melancholy, but when you look at the man’s filmography, one of the common elements is a darkness that permeates. The difference, though, between his earlier works (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) and his more recent (The Fountain, The Wrestler), is a respect for subtlety. In Requiem, Aronofsky thrust the grotesque into the faces of his audience with an almost mean-spirited bravado. It’s a film that, despite its high quality, is simply too awful for repeated viewings. Lately though, Aronofsky has coupled that signature bleakness with a real human beauty. He has found a balance in his method, and with his last three films, The Fountain, The Wrestler and now Black Swan, he has shown the kind of forward momentum that ensures real longevity.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer in a New York City ballet company on the verge of a production of Swan Lake. The company’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is recasting the dual part of the White and Black Swan, replacing the long-tenured Beth (Winona Ryder). Nina has spent years working tirelessly for the opportunity to be prima ballerina, both for herself and her over-bearing and overly devoted mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Nina’s chance arrives in the form of the Swan Queen role, and as she attempts to achieve perfection in her dance, and compete with the antithetical Nina (Mila Kunis), her mind unravels toward something awful and beautiful.
Every moment in this film is seen from Nina’s point of view; Aronofsky often following and shooting directly behind the character (a la The Wrestler) or moving closely into her face. It’s mostly thanks to this that the character’s mental disintegration is so often confused with reality. Until the end of the film you’re still not entirely sure what’s real and what’s a figment, and this is a startlingly effective design. Not only does it create a surreality where the environment is malleable and terrifying, but it keeps you from reaching any conclusions about the characters for much of the film. For instance, choosing this story’s villain is perilous. All the main characters at some time or another seem vindictively motivated, and they are just as often absolved. Only in the end is the true villain realized, a revelation somehow startling and-at the same time-obvious.
To clear up a bit of the film’s ambiguity, a majority of the story involves itself with Nina’s conflicted inner self. As a dancer, she is technically immaculate and devoid of passion. Her approach to dance is mathematical, while the company’s latest addition Lily is purely emotive. This inability to let go is a singular strife and sits at the base of all Nina’s troubles. It is dictated mostly by a bizarrely infatuous relationship with her mother; a perpetual coddling which has kept Nina locked in her childhood. Her mother’s obsession with what could have been in her own dance career has shifted to her daughter and locked the two women to their respective roles. Nina’s prudishness, while appropriate for her role as the White Swan, keeps her from achieving the sensuality and seduction needed in the role of the Black Swan. Thomas responds by instigating brief and fiery sexual encounters between himself and Nina in the hopes of bringing out the inner Id we all know is waiting impatiently in the wings of her mind. This alternate personality is perhaps the scariest element of this film. For Nina to succeed she must unlock it, but it seems inevitable that allowing this part of her to come forward and take control will result in only bad things. Like Mickey Rourke’s Wrestler, Nina is driven entirely by a devotion to the one thing she imagines will make her worth something, and even an understanding that this one thing may be her undoing won’t keep her from pursuing it. This self-destruction is a fascinating theme in both cases, though here it feels darker, more consequential. Nina’s unraveling is disturbing and elegantly wrought.
Aronofsky’s approach to this film is neither simple nor complex, but makes the most of a few select thematic elements. Mirrors are a consistent imagery representing the duality of Nina as she struggles to cope with her divide. Some of Portman’s best performance moments are reflected by her mirrored images. A few points in particular find the actress struggling with a Sybil-like vacillation, and if this performance is deemed Oscar worthy, it will be these insular conflicts that bring it there. Sexuality, and sex itself, are both consistently utilized to represent the divide between Nina’s childhood and adulthood. When Thomas suggests that Nina go home and “touch herself” in order to “live a little“, her morning session of personal intimacy is interrupted dramatically when she realizes her mother has fallen asleep in her room. All these details are effective, if not occasionally heavy-handed. It seems the writers and director don’t want to risk anything being left undiscovered or unconsidered, particularly Nina’s mental split. The number of times we see another woman’s face morph into Nina’s own as some sort of devilish twin is not inconsequential. Much like any overly abundant use of theme, one starts to wish he had left us a little more to do.
Ultimately though, this is another passionate and beautiful entry into Aronofsky’s filmography. It seems he’ll never move away from his signature darkness, and I certainly wouldn’t ask him to. But as he matures as an auteur so do his films, the dark and the grotesque becoming more than just visceral bombardments. If you look at the heart of all his films, I think you’ll find that this director is far more concerned with the beauty of the human experience than the darkness of it.