Movies are made for all sorts of different reasons and when those reasons include something quick and exciting or something light to take you away for an afternoon, there is nothing wrong with that no matter what film snobs say. But then there are films like Black Swan that are about something more and rather than give you a quick snack give you a meal that nourishes. Black Swan is the sort of film that edifies you and when you leave you feel as if you have seen something very important. That sounds pretentious maybe but whatever, this is the best film I’ve seen all year and has an amazing depth. It is a rare movie about perfection that manages that perfection itself.
Black Swan follows Nina (Natalie Portman) a ballerina in a New York ballet company who is consumed completely with ballet and focuses completely on getting ahead in the company. Driven by her never-was former dancer mother (Barbara Hershey), she has pretty much nothing in her life outside of dancing. When the company announces its first production for the new season, Nina finds herself landing the lead in Swan Lake, a move which puts the former star of the company, Beth (Winona Ryder) out to pasture and puts her much closer to artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) an equally obsessive man who is known for sleeping with his leads. An additional wrinkle is thrown in when rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) shows up and catches Thomas’s attention. Nina has a hard time letting go enough to play the black swan and Lily is full of seductive abandon. Nina is forced to deal with the doubts of the director, the threat of replacement by Lily, doubt and resentment by her mother and her own fear and obsession with perfection.
While the film deals with several themes, the most prominent one is obsession and the lengths people go to attain it. This is not just explored in Nina’s journey but each of the characters deal with it in some way or another. For Nina’s part, she is driven by her mother not only to achieve for herself but to make her mother proud. She is bearing the weight of her mother’s failure, a burden she feels responsible for given it was her birth that derailed her mother’s career. Because of this she is left without much for herself and exists in a state of arrested development. All she has is the pursuit of excellence and once excellence is attained she becomes terrified of losing it or failing to live up to expectations. For her mother, she has put all her shattered dreams on her daughter’s back and has sacrificed everything to make sure that Nina doesn’t make the same mistakes she did but in doing so fails to understand how much she has damaged her daughter. Thomas wants to have the funding needed to continue to deliver the ballets he wants and for those productions to be perfect. If he has to discard one girl for another to do it with little regard for what that does to her then so be it. If he needs to terrorize and sexually molest his dancers to get them to find the keys inside themselves to unlock their potential then so be it. And Lily is a different matter. Is she just as driven as Nina to be on the top that she will do whatever it takes to undermine her rival or is she a genuine friend who wants to see Nina succeed?
As this all plays out, Aronofsky keeps his camera tight on the actors which increases the intimacy with the characters and scenes but also heightens the claustrophobia and surreal paranoia that grows the deeper Nina gets into the production. As the film moves forward, Nina becomes the definition of an unreliable narrator as the viewer loses its grasp on the real and the delusion from moment to moment. Nina starts to break down but also make breakthroughs with her tightly wound personality. She becomes more and more the black swan everyday such that she begins seeing feathers sprout from her back and gooseflesh ripple across her body. Keeping the camera so tight draws the audience into Nina’s psyche and you feel like you are right there with her the deeper and deeper she sinks.
The technical skill on display here is truly staggering. This is a complex story told in an equally complex way and Aronofsky never fumbles the pace or lingers too long on a moment. The film is peppered with moments so intense that you want to look away but you don’t because it is so compelling and well shot. Blending this in with the score and music cues sets the mood just right, particularly when the music drops out all together and it is just the viewer and Nina in a moment of profound intimacy.
That intimacy extends to the sexual themes running beneath the surface as Nina unlocks her own personality through exploring her own sexuality. She is unable to seduce or let go in her role because she is too tightly wound and too inhibited to even know where to begin. Once she starts down that road she finds that the object of her greatest consternation becomes the object of her greatest desire and these scenes are steamy and sensual without ever feel exploitative. There are no cheap moments but rather moments of sexuality that feel both poetic and artistic.
The dance sequences are also tight, intimate and breathtaking. Much of the dancing was performed by Portman herself and you can see that because the camera stays in close for most of the shots. Her movements deliver exactly the performance they are meant to and you can feel the changes she is going through personally in these movements and it makes these sequences that much more powerful. They can be admired for their skill and beauty but also through their narrative flow. These are amazingly shot and performed full stop.
The performances are absolutely outstanding across the board. If Natalie Portman doesn’t go home with the Oscar for this role then frankly I think it is the final nail and that award’s credibility. Vincent Cassel, who is always excellent, brings exactly the right touch to Thomas to make him smarmy and creepy but still human and oddly compelling. Given some of his tactics here one might assume that he would come off vile and irredeemable but instead he feels compelling and seductive and frankly at the end of the day has a fairly good point. Mila Kunis is gorgeous as ever but more than that instills Lily with perfect ambiguty. You kind of see her as Nina does and Kunis juggles the contradictions with deft skill. She could have gone with over the top psycho or put upon innocence but instead does the brave thing and straddles the line such that you aren’t sure what to make of her. Barbara Hershey really stands out as Nina’s mother and avoids a cliched portrayal of this sort of character that again refuses to strictly demonize the woman but conveys how profoundly broken and obsessed she is. Winona Ryder cuts loose with a completely unhinged performance that doesn’t occupy much screen time but is felt throughout the entire film.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
Aronofsky is a master director turning in master level work here. The film is layered and nuanced and begs for repeated viewings. There is so much depth here built on top of so much quality that it is absolutely without a doubt the best film of 2010. That is not a ‘so far this year’ or ‘amongst the best’ it is the best hands down. There have been some great films this year and this film has a lot of great company but it stands above them by head and shoulders.