The magnificent “obsession” can be one of two things. It can be a thing of beauty, a gifted ballet dancer gracefully contorting their body to a harmonious pace. But it can also be a thing of darkness, a face of white like Bergman’s vision of Death with red, piercing eyes included. Director Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to telling tales of obsession. In fact, most of his films deal with the dueling sides of that fiery driven coin. With Black Swan, his latest film, he once again delves into the mental state of one who is obsessed, and, once again, he creates a thing of visionary brilliance.
Black Swan, slow burn though it may be in the former half, quickly transcends both its lead character and her story into a pulsating beast, something that envelops its audience, sucks the energy from them, and sends them out into the night begging for more. It could very well be Aronofsky’s masterpiece. At the forefront of Black Swan is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). A member of a New York City ballet company, she finds herself in the lead role of the company’s, more so the director’s, new vision of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake. Incredibly gifted, Nina performs the role of the white swan with utter elegance. However, the role calls for two sides, the white swan as well as the villainous black swan. Nina, determined but unable to break the ideology of innocence that is instilled in her nature, strives to grab hold of the black swan role. The lengths that she goes and the breaking down of her world, both physical and mental, in order to perfect both roles leads to shocking results.
Aronofsky has always been a director who gets into his characters’ heads. He has always executed with perfect clarity the mental breakdowns involved in whatever obsession his leads find themselves locked to. Whether it’s drugs with Requiem for a Dream or finding a stage to perform with The Wrestler or even a determination to overcome the death of a loved one with The Fountain, Aronofsky’s films have traveled that dark line showing us characters we feel for but also understand the destruction they cause in their own lives.
The same goes for Black Swan, as he, as well as the screenwriters involved, gives us Nina, an innocent girl with a determination. However, the obsession in Black Swan is not directly linked to Nina’s desire for celebrity. She doesn’t necessarily want to be a dancer but rather is living out a delegated fantasy from her mother, played here with solid enthusiasm by Barbara Hershey. This disconnect—the buffer that is created between Nina and the black swan role—causes you to feel for her even more than any of Aronofky’s previous characters.
This is her obsession, but it’s a means of giving her mother happiness, of finding a balance between what she wants for herself and what will please the person whose fantasy is really being pursued. This relationship, as well as all the relationships in Black Swan, is created with forceful pursuance. It’s both in the way Aronofsky shoots his characters as well as the highly gifted actors he incorporates into them. Natalie Portman, always on top of her game, pulls out everything for Nina here.
Innocent to edged, mousy to fearless, light to dark, she bulls through the range in performance required of her, but it is pulled off with the absolute grace that is appreciative of the character involved. In this dark masterpiece, she brings the light, and it becomes all the more heart-wrenching when her light begins to fade. This dichotomy and the volatility that stems from Nina and the performance Portman gives is also presented with grand effect in the way Aronofsky shoots Nina’s world.
Mostly hand-held and with little frills in terms of production quality, the world of Black Swan is presented with a rough edge, a jagged box that houses these graceful creatures within its serrated confines. However, those walls surrounding Nina aren’t 100% opaque. The way Aronofsky incorporates reflection gives the film and the world within it a feeling that there is another world outside looking in. The black swan of Nina’s mind, the doppelganger who wants to take over her innocence, is lurking about just waiting for the crack in the glass to bleed through and into her.
It gives Black Swan an even more omnipresent sense of foreboding, something that would have been existent in some capacity regardless. This foreshadowing builds, and, much like his previous films, Aronofsky turns the final pages of this story with the force of a tornado. The story, setting, and characters are established extremely well. The slow burn feel gives a Red Shoes feel. However, once the stride is hit, once the waterslide of emotion and ferocious movement begins, there is no turning back.
The final 20 to 30 minutes of Black Swan immerses you, pulls you into itself until you genuinely have a tough time differentiating what is real and what is film. With glaring red eyes and white makeup (as well as some extremely well-placed CG effects), a look that would make Bergman’s Death cower in fright, Portman and Aronofsky execute Nina’s culminating dance with an intense fervor. That dance, as well as the events surrounding it, affects its audience, and once the closing credits come up, you find yourself thrust back into the real world, your mind still a mile or two down the road trying to catch up.
As you begin to piece back together the film that has just transpired, you understand how Nina’s obsession, the catalyst that drives the madness, nightmares, and ultimately the darkness of Black Swan, has fully embraced you, as well. It probably isn’t a film that everyone will be able to handle, and even fewer will walk away from it without some level of altered perception. However, this is the case with most masterpieces, and Aronofsky, a director who has no shortage of amazing films under his belt, has finally given us his.