Image source. Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010.
Like the torn spirit it portrays, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 thriller Black Swan will leave you internally split. On the one hand, Black Swan is certainly an artfully made psychological thriller. On the other hand, it’ll probably also make you want to throw up. This depiction of one ballerina’s descent into mental and emotional lunacy will leave you sick to your stomach. Engrossing, ably paced: yes. Enjoyable: no.
Black Swan takes a ballet everyone thinks he/she knows well, Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous Swan Lake, and amplifies it to a more intimate level. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young, aspiring New York ballerina. Dedicated, reserved, and polite to the point of passivity, she still lives with her doting yet domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself. In terms of her dancing, Nina is hardworking and reasonably talented, but nothing inspired. Then, by a stroke of circumstances, her boss, a demanding, forceful man named Thomas (Vincent Cassel), decides to cast her in the main role of their upcoming production of Swan Lake. Sayers soon finds out that her part is really two roles in one. The Swan Queen has two sides to her personality: the pristine, pure White Swan and the dark, sensuous Black Swan. Mama’s good girl knows all the moves for the White Swan without fail, but it’s the spontaneous Black Swan that stymies her. Adding to her frustration: a co-performer, the easygoing, impulsive Lily (Mila Kunis), who seems to know all the Black Swan moves that keep tripping Nina up.
Poor Nina, Nina who still sleeps in a bedroom with pink princess-y covers and plush teddy bears, is about to have her orderly world turned asunder. Suffice to say she takes the demands of the Black Swan role too seriously. 1.5 hours of hallucinations, masturbation attempts, and lesbian sexual fantasies later, she’s become completely unrecognizable: her uncontrollable id has taken over her entire being. And eventually, her inability to distinguish between simple reality and the inner stirrings of her unsettled mind all but determines her untimely ending.
Darren Aronofsky has been down this alleyway before. Several of his earliest works, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, were similarly frightening psychological perturbations, surreal, scarily unnerving movies that left you unsure of what’s “real” and what’s merely inside your head. Black Swan does no disservice to Aronofsky’s background. It’s frightening, disturbing, and taut in its delivery. As Nina slowly loses her mind, we start losing control of ours as well. Before we know it, we’re seeing and hearing things ourselves. Aronofsky creates the atmosphere of fear and unknowing without ever making it boring. You never know where Nina’s restless mind will go next…until it does. And he’s aided, of course, by an excellent performance from Natalie Portman, who does well channeling first the innocence and then gradual madness required to make Nina’s transformation believable and memorable.
But as memorable as Black Swan is, it’s simply not pleasant to watch. Yes, thrillers and horrors are going to be unpleasant no matter what. But Aronofsky takes the shock factor to a whole new level. He details every last step in Nina’s unwinding to the point where the graphic brutality of the images becomes a bit of a turn-off. You might find yourself looking away from the screen a few times. We can look on in wonder at how Nina descends so far into the pit of psychosis. But would we like to see it all again, every gruesome frame? I think not. Aronofsky has made a raw, visceral film, but it ends up being one of those movies you can simply admire, not love.
So if you’re thick-skinned and a big fan of horror and thriller movies, odds are Black Swan will be your cup of tea. Otherwise…well, it’s certainly nice to hear Tchaikovsky on the big screen. You can acclaim the artistry, the careful thinking and work that went in to making this movie so unbearably chilling. But be ready when you watch this. If you’re not careful, this trip into the subconscious might strike a little harder than you expect.
Black Swan (2010)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey
Running Time: 108 minutes
Produced by: Ari Handel, Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin