There has always been a one-dimensionality to director Darren Aronofsky’s approach to creating on-screen tension: his extreme close-ups of little pains — tiny cuts or punctured skin, dilating eyes, crawling bugs — matched with a jarring screech on the soundtrack. We see it in his latest film, Black Swan, when his lead, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) peals a layer of skin off her finger or examines the mysterious drops of blood on her back. Although Aronofsky has never pushed these effects as far as his influences (David Lynch) or even some of his contemporaries (Gasper Noé), he leverages his weapons to mind-sizzling results, fueling stories that are often paced with a Hitchcock-ian precision.
With each successive movie, the filmmaker behind cult cornerstones Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), as well as the Mickey Rouke triumph, The Wrestler, learns how to incorporate these neurotic moments more deftly. More and more they become a dramatic means, and not the focal point of his films’ experiences.
Both Pi and Requiem were very much about how the director could make us feel while watching his movies. With Black Swan, that thrill-ride quality has taken a side-seat, not only to an ensemble of strong characters, but to a story thematically bound up in its own craft, whose exploration of character and human action are woven into an inquiry into how these things are explored through art. In this way, Aronofsky is still making movies concerned with the experience of watching movies, only he has stumbled into a form that allows for a more Shakespearean self-reflection.
Black Swan’s story is about the creation of a work of art, a performance of Swan Lake by the New York City Ballet. Tchaikovsky’s ballet retells a Russian folk tale about a princess who is turned into a swan. In the movie, choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has added a twist. The virginal white swan must convince a prince to fall in love with her in order to break the spell, only the prince is seduced by the black swan, and the white swan kills herself. In Leroy’s production, the black swan and white swan will be played by the same dancer. The prudish Nina gets the role, despite Leroy’s doubts that she can handle portraying the seductive power of the black swan. As the perfectionist lead dancer, who is coddled and haunted by her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), prepares for the role, she begins to unravel mentally, bending and eventually breaking under the pressure of the high-profile role, the vindictive competitive dancers, the prying of her mother, the expanding of her sexual world, and the sexual advances of her choreographer.
Portman couldn’t be better cast. There has always been a cageyness to her sexuality, a primped prissiness to her onscreen presence that, despite her beauty, makes her less seductress and more attractive girl next door, suburban heartthrob. Portman’s Nina is a shaky mess of psychological cramping. Her pressed lips and slumping cheeks bear as much of the weight of her performance as her thin body, which is convincingly balletic. In one moment her thin arms wave elegantly like swan wings, the next they seem like brittle twigs ready to crack. We are not sure if Portman herself can become the Black Swan, which not only makes the experience of watching her all the more excruciating, but also contributes to the layering of the film’s dramatic awareness.
Portman is surrounded by a flock of dancers who contribute tension to the drama like a staccato string section, with understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) playing first violin. Cassel also emerges with robust power. The French actor brings much of the knavish charm and villainous virility he infused into this year’s wonderful Mesrine, and although his ballet shoes are hung up, he is mesmerizing to watch twisting and spinning among his girls, tugging at their hearts with puppet strings.
With all these elements, Aronofsky creates an ensemble drama with moral and social angst reminiscent of John Cassavetes. His film submerges our experience into Nina’s troubled reality, leveraging his character’s instability to break down the fractured boundaries between audience and drama, drama and story. In Black Swan, Aronofsky shows a dramatic sophistication that isn’t present in his earlier films. He has material in Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay that is more expansive than anything he has ever done before, and the director has responded with an able hand.
Aronofsky seems to have gleaned some wisdom from his experience with The Wrestler, a good, not great film, but one whose power rested squarely on the shoulders of a masterful performance. Likewise, in Black Swan, Aronofsky trusts his actors and his story more than he has in any of his memorable early works, while still conjuring the anxious grit that has always been his prime method of drawing in audiences heart-first. The Black Swan is an overwhelming cinematic experience. With it, Aronofsky has finally made his truly great film.