“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go”.
Black Swan (2010) follows ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) whose life is completely consumed with dance. Her career hits he highest point when artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) chooses her as the replacement for prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake. Nina, however, has competition in the form of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis). Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. The two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship as Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side.
Darren Aronofsky’s career got off to a flying start in 1998 he won best director at Sundance for his debut feature in Pi. The American filmmaker continued in the same vein with each of his subsequent films being showered with accolades.
His unique style, clearly present in all of his previous works Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler, sets him apart and is the reason for the high praise. The narratives of these films are typically centred on emotionally weak characters facing extreme emotional pressure and battling their inner turmoil. This turmoil is often messy and disturbing, such as the scene in Pi where a man suffering from mental breakdowns applies an electric screwdriver to his scalp and sprays his brains all over the room, or in Black Swan where Nina peels skin away from her fingernail, which tests the gag reflexes of all audiences.
Another common feature of Aronofsky’s style is that he takes actors away from their cast type roles and places them in unfamiliar territory, thereby exposing their true potential. This has resulted in some surprisingly brilliant performances, such as Jared Leto in Requiem For A Dream or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
Throughout her career to date Portman’s performances have followed a similar pattern. The young women she plays are typically immature and often require the encouragement of a strong lead actor to aid them, such as Evey in V For Vendetta and Sam in Garden State. However, in Black Swan, Nina is all alone, suffering from anxiety and deep psychological trouble. Under Aronofsky’s wing she’s transformed into a completely different actress capable of performing in a completely different way.
Portman’s Nina begins the film as childish and completely dependent on the loving, but somewhat obsessive, care of her mother. She gets tucked into bed before falling asleep listening to the beautifully soothing tones of, what else, than Tchaikovsky’s Song of Swans from Swan Lake. Aronofsky here highlights the immaturity of Portman’s character, but also how much control dancing has on her life. When Nina isn’t practicing or rehearsing her focus remains entirely transfixed upon ballet – she is the embodiment of the White Swan.
The problems for Nina arise when rehearsing the part of the Black Swan. She fails to embrace the part and artistic director Thomas Leroy feels that in order to achieve it she needs to break away from the innocence of the White Swan. He utilizes his charismatic charm in order to seduce her into embracing the lifestyle required to play a convincing Black Swan. After failing to transform Nina he turns to newcomer Lily who has the biggest influence on her. She opens her eyes to the fun, exciting side of life typified by the head-ache inducing, drug fuelled intensity of a club scene. After being tempted into spreading her wings Nina changes dramatically; as does Portman herself as she matures into an actress worthy of a Academy nomination.
In all of his films Aronofsky has used the same cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose camera operation and lighting are as beautifully poetic as the ballet itself. The recurring black and white aesthetic anchors to the inner turmoil the protagonist is facing, the constant battle between black and white swans. The main object of his focus however is the dancer’s feet – the intimacy of tightly framed close ups show every intricate, elegant movement. Repeated shots of shoes being laced represents the time and effort these dancers are putting in to their careers.
Aronofsky controls the film as if directing a ballet – his unique style provides the perfect opportunity for Portman to escape her traditional role using an established cinematographer whose feather-like touch helps to make this drama worthy of all the acclaim it is achieving.