In today’s cinematic world, nobody nails surrealism like Darren Aronofsky. While you could argue he has some contenders, namely David Lynch, Aronofsky one ups them all for one reason. The weirdness doesn’t overwhelm the story. Lynch’s films are mind bending, but don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Lost Highway and Eraserhead in particular come off as weird simply for the sake of it and any type of analytical conclusion one could derive from those films is probably nonsense. Lynch himself has even stated that he has never read an analysis of Eraserhead that fits his own. Aronofsky, on the other hand, hits the perfect balance. He messes with your head and sometimes confuses you, but it’s nothing a second watch can’t fix. There’s more to his movies than meets the eye and his latest, Black Swan, is no different.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York ballet company that has just announced their next project, a production of “Swan Lake.” The play requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan and Nina thinks she is right for the part, but the director, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel, isn’t so sure. When she dances, he sees the angelic White Swan side of her, but not the other darker half. Nevertheless, he gives her the part of the Swan Queen, but she soon finds herself competing with Lily (Mila Kunis), who she thinks is trying to steal it from her. To keep it, she trains rigorously with a disregard for her physical and mental health and it begins to tear her apart.
At various points in the movie, Nina is told to “lose herself” in the role and she does, but not in the way the director intends. The story of the Swan Queen begins to mimic her life and it becomes her all. In the play, the White Swan morphs into her evil twin and Nina does the same. When we meet her, she is a fragile girl who is dealing with various kinds of abuse from those around her. Her mother is living vicariously through her, wishing for her to have the career she never had. She is seemingly friendless and she lacks the courage to stand up for anything, breaking down any time confrontations occur. It's this initial meekness that makes her eventual transformation so powerful.
The obvious color contrast between the good and evil sides of the play’s title character is not lost on the rest of the film. Black Swan plays with the motif of black and white, good and evil. Entire rooms exist that are washed in the two opposite colors and the main characters, Nina and Lily, wear clothes colored almost exclusively with one of them. In fact, I can’t recall one scene where Lily wore something other than black. The clashing colors is a stark reminder throughout the entire film that something has gone, or is about to go, horribly awry.
Refusing to simplistically limit itself, Black Swan also has fun with how Nina sees herself and the world through reflections. Mirrors surround her, whether she’s practicing in the mirror encompassed rehearsal room or passing through her house, someone or something is always staring back at her. The mirror theme may be too abundant, however. They’re so noticeable in the first half of the film that when crazy things do begin to happen, it's expected and not as shocking.
But that doesn’t detract from its intelligence. Black Swan is a smart film that may not make perfect sense right away, but slowly reveals itself upon reflection. To completely decipher the puzzle, multiple viewings are required and that’s okay because this is a fantastic movie that is anchored by Portman’s powerful performance. Even Mila Kunis, who had yet to convince me she had what it took to be a good actress, won me over here. Still, this is Aronofsky’s masterpiece. After his most straight forward film, 2008’s The Wrestler, he returns to the style that put him on the map. Like Requiem for a Dream and Pi, Black Swan is a dark and beautiful look into the macabre, and he spices it up with some terrific camerawork, like one nifty point of view shot as Nina pirouettes.
As you watch Black Swan, your eyes and ears will catch things that you’ll swear can’t really be happening, but they are. It will trick you into noticing things that are out of the ordinary, but that’s precisely the point. As you think back on them, you’ll begin to see their significance and that is perhaps the film's greatest strength. This is Aronofsky’s best work to date and a late contender for one of the best of the year.
Black Swan receives 4.5/5