In The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky offered his audience an insight into the world of ‘low-art’ trashy entertainment for the masses. Here, in his self-proclaimed companion piece Black Swan, he chooses to focus on the exclusive ‘high-art’ world of Ballet.
With the appeal of Winona Ryder’s prima ballerina rapidly waning with audiences, Tomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the head of the New York Company Nina dances with, decides to put on a new revamped version of Swan Lake. With this new production comes the forced retirement of Ryder’s character and the opportunity for a new lead: an opportunity that Nina so desperately desires.
In Nina’s search for perfection she is told by Tomas that she is ideal for the role of the White Swan, but he is not convinced that she is suitable for the dual role of the Black Swan. Only after a chance encounter between the two in which Nina’s exhibits a hitherto unseen darker side is she cast as the Swan Queen. As Nina attempts to connect with a more seductive side of herself, a side that will help her performance, it is clear that her mental stability begins to unravel.
Natalie Portman, much like Nina, is perfect in her role, utterly embodying both sides of Nina’s character, wonderfully depicting her innocence at the film’s outset, to her rapid decline into insanity. Much has been made of Portman’s dedication to the role, preparing for months beforehand in order to dance much of the film’s choreography: this commitment undoubtedly pays off, whilst she may not be as technically good as a professional dancer, her perseverance has surely imbued her performance as Nina.
The rest of the cast too are impressive, Mila Kunis playing Lily, Nina’s rival for the role of Swan Queen, gloriously embodies all that is required for the role of the seductive Black Swan. Hershey is suitably imposing as Nina’s mother, determined to infantilise her daughter, preventing her from breaking free from her influence. Nina’s difficulty in displaying the sensuality needed for the role of the Black Swan stems from her sexual repression, a repression that largely, if not entirely, is due to her neurotic mother, who at times is almost as unstable as Nina herself.
Detractors will note that the film is over-the-top, with little character development, certainly fair criticisms: the film is undoubtedly melodramatic and emotionally heightened throughout, but this is not to the film’s detriment. It is a claustrophobic film, with the camera ever looking over Nina’s shoulder, we see Nina’s madness, her visions and hallucinations, and thus we too are engaged in this emotionally heighted state. Other characters are poorly developed because Nina is our focus, it is clear Nina does not connect with many of those around her, appearing to have little if any friends, thus the film does not connect with any other character aside from Nina.
Perhaps not as initially impressive as The Wrestler, Black Swan’s true impact lies in the days after its screening. Black Swan is a truly wonderful, visually striking depiction of a woman’s descent into madness.