Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, is an interesting exploration of sex and violence set in the exciting world of ballet. Ok, so maybe ballet isn’t exciting to everybody, and I didn’t find it invigorating at first, but it’s definitely original. I don’t remember any ballet movies; I’m fairly certain Aronofsky chose an unexplored occupation for his latest film. The film contains Aronofsky’s distinct voice, which is present in all of his films – natural looking lights and colors, interesting shot composition, and a mixture of objective and subjective perspective. The performances, mainly Natalie Portman’s, are excellent, which is a bit surprising. Usually Portman stinks up the screen (Queen Amidala in the hideous Star Wars prequels, the horrid fake British accent in V for Vendetta), but her portrayal of Nina is really a home run.
Nina’s (Portman) ballet company’s first show is Swan Lake, the story of a woman’s transformation into a swan. Nina’s lead role, the Swan Queen, features two roles: the white swan representing purity and love and the black swan representing lust. The normally reserved and meek Nina needs to find her dual nature, bringing more than technical proficiency to her performance. Eventually abandoning her overbearing and belligerent mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina explores sex, finding it isn’t inspiring and leads to disappointment. It’s when she embraces violence that her performance comes alive. Aronofsky implements a series of visual and metaphorical tricks, explaining Nina’s metamorphosis from a timid young woman into a ballet superstar. Nina experiences a series of self mutilation issues and hallucinations, all of which open her up to the black swan – she visually transforms into this creature throughout the film and this visual tool represents her explorations of sex and violence.
A line from Jane’s Addiction’s song Ted, Just Admit it comes to mind when thinking about Black Swan: “Sex is violent.” The line between sex and violence is very thin; sometimes the line is blurred. Some people enjoy violent sex; many serial killers claim violence actions provide a sexual thrill; religion condemns both acts – an affront to god. Pursuing a perfect performance, Nina explores both. The film features masturbation scenes, one ending in disappointment, and a lesbian sex scene between Nina and Lily (Mila Kunis), her understudy. However, all the sexual moments end in disaster for Nina: she’s late for work after the sex scene (which is a hallucination anyways); her autoeroticism’s interrupted by her mother. Only when Nina embraces violence does her performance really shine.
The film’s final act, featuring Nina’s live performance, outshines anything else she’s done. Unfortunately it’s only after she believes she commits murder, which finally allows her physical and psychical transformation into the dark black swan. Through an act of extreme violence, Nina recognizes her drives, embracing them and giving the best performance of her career. Yet, like the tale she’s performing, Nina’s liberation follows Swan Lake’s narrative and as the screen fades to white the similarities between her and the roles she play come full circle.
Even though I thought the film’s first act was slow I found it necessary. Nina’s a very reserved, shy character and this portion of the film demonstrates that through slow pacing. The film as a whole is fascinating, beautifully shot and brilliantly executed. Aronofsky’s trademark style makes the character’s subjectivity personal; seeing Nina’s transformation from her perspective is possible due to his direction and cinematography. I’m not entirely sure if I really liked Nina as a character, but regardless of this I can see how her home life – domineered by a controlling, jealous, and somewhat violent mother – influences her reserved demeanor. Only after shedding this aspect of her life does she finally come alive, although this animation comes with a price. Living with a violent mother for so many years, coupled with the physical intensities of ballet, shaped her desires; she craves violent and has an aversion to sexuality.
I’m certain there’s more to this film if I think about it more. The barbarism of ballet, which is a highly competitive field where performers endure physical and mental pain, is evident in the film. However, art is suffering and no artist can create effectively without pain. The guitarist’s fingers bleed before calluses form and the ballet dancer’s feet burn and harden in the quest for physical perfection. Nina embraces this violence throughout the film, although it’s only when it becomes part of her personality that she transcends her technical expertise and injects empathetic emotion into her craft.
Also featuring Winona Ryder as an outgoing ballet star and Vincet Cassel as Swan Lake’s director, Aronofsky’s latest film will most likely receive recognition this Oscar season. It has all the trappings of Oscar bait: quality performances, solid metaphors and allusions, and clever direction. As stated above, Portman gives the best performance of her career, probably related to her year of ballet training prior to filming. I haven’t seen an Aronofsky film I didn’t enjoy and Black Swan is another addition to a solid filmography.
Here’s the trailer