Review: Black Swan

Again, a several months delayed post, but now that summer is here, I’ll probably be posting reviews a bit more often.

A synthesis of much of Darren Aronofsky’s previous work, Black Swan might not be the director’s best film to date, but it comes really damn close. It takes the calculated paranoia of Pi and applies to the female psyche. It mixes the obsessive qualities of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain and throws them on an impossible road where perfection is the destination. Finally, it amplifies the visual aesthetic of The Wrestler to suit the choreography of ballet and in the process, strips the highest of physical art forms down to the bone.

At the center of Aronofsky’s film is the brittle and innocent Nina, played by Natalie Portman. An experienced member of a prominent New York ballet company, Nina is chosen to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan in the company’s season opening production of Swan Lake. While she excels in technique, Nina lacks in feeling and emotion when dancing. Much of this is due to Nina’s repression by her stage mother, resulting in her childlike tendencies. The apartment they live in is far more claustrophobic than it is inviting. The artistic director, played with determined verve by Vincent Cassell, encourages and even forces Nina to confront her darker impulses and desires, yet Nina remains reluctant. The emergence of a rival dancer, the smoldering Mila Kunis, adds to the tension, and Nina slowly begins to unravel under the pressure. Though at first Portman’s portrayal of Nina does not seem initially striking, as the film progresses, so does her performance. Rarely is she given the opportunity for scene chewing, since there is a terrific level of nuance and subtlety to the character. However, Portman uses this to her advantage, for there are times when a simple glance or tilt of the head speaks volumes about her internal struggle.

Immediately apparent to Black Swan are all of the cinematic sources that Aronofsky draws upon to effectively communicate his story. The most obvious homage is paid to Roman Polanski’s psychosexual thriller Repulsion, where a young woman also begins to go insane due to her own inadequacies. Additionally, touches of David Cronenberg and David Lynch surface, as the plot progresses into increasingly twisted realms. Since this is a ballet film, Aronofsky is also indebted to prominent ballet films from the past, especially The Red Shoes. Even aspects of the story of Swan Lake are embedded within Black Swan. Aronofsky swirls all of these cinematic elements in harmony with each other, while still maintaining his own voice.

If Aronofsky’s foray into handheld cinematography with The Wrestler was a successful experiment, then his implementation of it in Black Swan with the eye of cinematographer Matthew Libatique is a wonderfully choreographed visual treat. Of course, handheld cinematography has become something of a cliché in contemporary cinema, yet Aronofsky and Libatique wisely exploit it for narrative purposes. Like The Wrestler, much of the film is shot from behind the protagonist, an interesting way of establishing point of view. This again showcases the strength of Portman’s performance, for though the camera often scurries behind her everywhere she goes, her lingering fears and insecurities remain palpable. Because of the highly formalistic aesthetics of ballet, films preceding this one have always seemed confined to shooting at a distance in order to maintain the integrity of the dancing. Black Swan, however, has other purposes. In rehearsals and on stage, the camera wonderfully immerses itself into the ballet, blocking its own movement in perfect sync with the movement of the dancers. Perhaps this is not wholly original and does not entirely complement the integrity of the dancing, but it certainly keys into the conflicting emotions driving the pirouettes.

In conjunction with the kinetic cinematography is the precise editing, another major cinematic factor expressing Nina’s bubbling mental instability. Throughout the entire film, Nina’s point of view is the one upon which the audience experiences the film, and the film exploits this editorially to a degree in which even the audience may not be sure what is real or what is imagined. Technically, the most impressive aspect of Black Swan was the sound design, perhaps the most crucial element to unlocking Nina’s mentality. Aronofsky establishes Nina’s downward spiral from the very beginning of the film, and the sound only augments the atmosphere and tension of every single scene. In particular, as she begins to discover her inner black swan, Nina’s breathing grows more seductive, and even dominates much of the audible spectrum in certain moments of the picture. Behind every major scene lies Clint Mansell’s chilling score, a combination of riffs off of Swan Lake as well as original compositions, both of which highlight the Nina’s bubbling dread and suspicion.

In conclusion, Black Swan is something of a summary of Darren Aronofsky’s directorial career thus far, synthesizing at once all of his previous work effortlessly, marrying it with elements of cinema history, and ultimately showcasing his unique eye for technique and performance.

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~ by romancinema on May 11, 2011.

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