I guess I’ll state this up front: I cannot stand the work of Darren Aronofsky. Even though, at the time of writing this review, I’ve only seen two of his films (this one and “Requiem For a Dream”), I feel like I already have a large enough picture into his style of filmmaking. He is mean-spirited in the worst way imaginable. He doesn’t want to entertain the audience, he wants them to be disturbed and take something from it. That’s especially true for “Requiem for a Dream”, which would’ve been improved by Jared Leto transforming into Michael Bluth Sr.’s one-armed friend at the end and telling the audience “And this is why you shouldn’t do drugs.”. If I don’t like his work, then why am I doing a Great Films review for “Black Swan”? Because, despite my hatred of his work, this film rang out to me as being a great film, since the habits of Aronofsky are being put to an effective use.
The film is a thriller played off like a horror story. It’s a similar tactic to “The Sixth Sense”, which was not a horror film but used scenes similar to horror films to hook the audience. Aronofsky, however, used the horror tactics of David Cronenberg for this film. Since the film tracks Nina’s transformation from the cold and perfectionist dancer to the dark and chaotic one she’s told to become, mirroring the transformation her character takes from being the white swan to the black swan, we see her becoming a swan. We see that, plus illusions from her own tired and deceitful mind. It isn’t a horror film, but the hallucinations and transformation scenes try to convince otherwise.
The plot works better than Aronofsky’s other attempts (based on my experience) due to the familiarity of the story. It follows Nina, a ballet dancer who gets cast as the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake, but also as the Black Swan, who she cannot get down as well as the director would like. The characters and plot mirror the classic ballet, which is evident by the credits listing the characters and their corresponding characters in Swan Lake. The ultimate revelation in the film is that, like the ballet ends with the Swan Queen throwing herself off a cliff, Nina throws herself into the role with the same end result.
Obsession usually makes a solid basis for a story, but it usually needs good actors to get it across. Well, our three leads, Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, and Mila Kunis, can carry that story. Portman gives her best performance in 16 years (since her role in “Leon: The Professional”) and portrays Nina as increasingly losing her grip on reality. Vincent Cassel works well as the director, who pushes and pushes for Nina to lose herself in the role. Mila Kunis is, for once, not a weak point for the film. She plays Lily as carefree and a less serious counterpoint for Nina. She acts as a perfect foil for her and, in Nina’s mind, antagonist.
Yes, the film is as mean-spirited as Aronofsky’s other output. But the basis in familiar territory grounds it and makes it a more interesting experience. Aronofsky’s greatest skill is still his technical skill, since he can shoot and edit his films in a nearly peerless league. He works best as a visualist, not a storyteller. That’s why “Black Swan” is his most effective film: the story already existed. He didn’t need to create a needlessly mean-spirited film to tell a story, he just needed to give a classic story some visuals.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder