Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan covers themes of dualism, perfectionism in the face of personal harm, repressed sexuality, and neuroses in a tale about a ballerina rising into her prime to play a role that may ultimately prove too taxing for her psyche to handle. In apt fashion, the film similarly suffers from a dualistic split in attempting to be a psychological thriller and drama, only to prove to the audience that there is no black and white and thus falling somewhere in the shades of gray in between. Does Black Swan’s inability to stay on message detract from a viewer’s enjoyment? Not really, nor does it make it any less of a film. What it does though is add a very subjective level of interpretational complexity to the film which can leave different people with wildly differing perspectives on what Black Swan was supposed to do and whether or not it succeeded.
Like in any sport or art where physical prowess holds a high value, ballet favors the combination of youthful agility and experience. Consequently, the New York Ballet’s reigning star Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) must step aside for a younger successor in the upcoming production of Swan Lake. Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) seeks one girl to fully embrace the duality of the ballet’s female characters and play both the White and Black Swan. Nina (Natalie Portman) exudes grace and enthusiasm but lacks the impulses and seductive nature Thomas wants in the dancer; but after a demonstration of impulse she lands the role and from there on out spends every waking hour, and even those sleeping, finding a way to transform from the fragile innocence she embodies into the confident, unflinching dancer who can properly portray both halves of her role. The transformation takes a toll on her mind and as she asserts her independence she finds herself at odds with her protective mother (Barbara Hershey), enamored with her fellow dancer and potential competition Lily (Mila Kunis), and increasingly uncertain as to what’s real and what is not.
Ultimately, Black Swan asks the question of whether or not moving away from one’s childhood is the same as losing one’s innocence and whether or not perfection is attainable. The answers it gives depend entirely on how you think events unfold. What isn’t left to interpretation is Aronofsky’s preying on inevitable human reactions to uncomfortable circumstances. For one, ballet takes a toll on a human body, as any physical activity will, but Aronofsky shows us the cuts, the sliced cuticles, and other small but painful injuries that everyone has encountered. We watch as Nina pushes herself further and further towards that idealized notion of a perfect balance between the White and Black Swans, only to discover that she doesn’t know where the exact point on the scale lies. Aronofsky makes Nina’s perfectionism and accompanying mania our own helping to blur the line between reality and fiction, leaving every skin-crawling event up for question until the very end.
Perfection, even if just momentary, is attainable, but it takes a serious toll on the human mind, body, and soul. In the case of the Black Swan there’s a serious argument for the cost being higher than the reward for any sane mind to accept. But maybe perfection exists outside of total sanity; maybe denying sanity is the final hurdle on the way to perfection most people just can’t clear.
With any Darren Aronofsky film there’s interesting aesthetic choices and involving camerawork at play. Nina’s injuries are filmed with grinding realism to make the audience squirm with every strip of skin peeled or shattered toenail bandaged. Visual effects hint at Nina’s budding transformation in a way that help skew the clarity of Nina’s mental state. Aronofsky created a pointedly straightforward but visually interesting film, and while not a perfect piece of cinema the combined effect makes you feel something. Even if that something is just really uncomfortable.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The combo set includes the film on Blu-ray and as a digital copy, with the extras only on the former. The clear winner in the featurettes is a walkthrough documentary with Darren Aronofsky as he explains his vision for the film, the story, the creation, and everything you’d want to know. For those looking for more details on the dance background, there’s a featurette highlighting the ballet’s influence on the film as well as one discussing how long the film sat in a metaphorical incubator and how Aronofsky and Natalie Portman prepared themselves for the film. Finally, a Fox promo fluff piece with profiles of the cast and their reflections on their characters is the final extra.
One extra I was expecting to see on here was the special effects reel that Fox touted prior to Black Swan’s theatrical release. It was interesting to watch how the animators added in the final swan transformation and it doesn’t make much sense that it wasn’t included here.
"Black Swan" is on sale March 29, 2011 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz. Starring Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder.