Black Swan


One of the central themes of “Black Swan” is the notion that perfection is not necessarily just about getting every step right. To become transcendent, you have to let go at some point and to accept to get lost, because that’s the only way to surprise both yourself and the audience. This is the challenge facing Natalie Portman‘s character Nina, a ballerina desperate to star in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as both the White Swan and the Black Swan, but also the one director Darren Aronofsky has set for himself in making the film.

It has long been my belief that, often times, it is indeed preferable to sacrifice some degree of precision and control in order to make a movie that feels edgier, more alive, less predictable. One can easily picture a more classical version of “Black Swan” that, somewhat like “The Wrestler”, would stick to being an intimate, vérité feeling character study. That film would probably be an easier sell with general audiences and the Academy but Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, has let the instincts that served him so well in more out-there efforts like “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” peek through “Black Swan”, often making it feel less like a naturalistic backstage drama than a trippy, visceral, genre-influenced exercise in style.

Beauty and horror coexist all through the story of Nina, as she struggles to perfect her art while slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality. Shot mostly with handheld cameras, edited in a way that masterfully blurs the line between what Portman’s character is experiencing and what she’s only imagining, and scored evocatively by Clint Mansell with a keen understanding of how to slide in and out of Tchaikovsky’s music, “Black Swan” uses all these elements of cinema and others (art direction, sound design, etc.) to alternately make us feel deeply involved with the protagonist and to create a disconnect with her. One moment we’re totally rooting for this sweet girl to get all the success and happiness she deserves, the next we only wish this clearly disturbed young woman would get some help…

Natalie Portman is jaw-dropping in the lead role, delivering a stunningly complex and layered performance and, as such, turning Nina into an utterly heartbreaking tragic figure. Everyone else in the stellar cast around her is great as well: Barbara Hershey as her emotionally manipulative mother, Mila Kunis as a sexy, threatening yet alluring rival dancer, Vincent Cassel as their brilliant but lecherous director, Winona Ryder as the bitter former prima ballerina of the company…

Flirting with the grace and discipline of ballet only to wilfully go off the rails and turn into a riveting mindfuck of a “lezzy wet dream”, “Black Swan” further establishes Darren Aronofsky as one of the true visionaries of contemporary American cinema. His latest film has been compared to the works of Polanski, Cronenberg, Lynch, De Palma, Argento and others, but it’s ultimately very much its own thing.