Black Swan sees both director Darren Aronofsky and actress Natalie Portman at their best. I was already a fan of the two of them, and I absolutely adore surrealism in film, so I was perfectly primed to love this film…and I did!
Note that this review will contain spoilers.
The film follows Portman’s character, Nina, undergo development pscyhosexually as she succumbs to obsession in her quest to become the perfect performer of her art through pushing herself dangerously hard competitively. Many, many films follow similar structures (at least in the latter point – not so much the psychosexual maturation), including the excellent “Whiplash”, and Aronofsky’s own “The Wrestler”, but Black Swan is relatively unique in its surrealist bent and its literary references.
To expand on that last point, Black Swan takes cues from Dostoevsky’s “The Double”, but these are integrated with the overarching focus on “Swan Lake” itself, with Nina’s “double” being Mila Kunis’ Lily (the Black Swan) replacing the life of Nina (the White Swan). Aronofsky stealthily switches Nina and Lily’s faces at certain stages, a choice directly reflecting “The Double”.
Nina’s psychosexual maturation occurs through her efforts to progress past the childlike, innocent White Swan figure into the lustful, mature, adult Black Swan. Her sexual development is seen through her impulsive biting, apparent intercourse with Nina, and so on. Her mother tries to inhibit such development and keep her childlike. The inherent awkwardness of a mother trying to inhibit her adult daughter’s sexuality is emphasised perfectly by Aronofsky; I know I jumped and felt sickened when Nina saw her mother in the room while she was masturbating! Actual feather and swan imagery is used often by Aronofsky to illustrate explicitly Lily’s transformation. Viewer’s tolerance of this differs; I thought it worked but I could understand some finding that imagery to be frustratingly on-the-nose – this is a film heavily concerned with symbolism and allegory, but it’s hardly a subtle one. I find it more theatrical than over-the-top, and that theatricality to suit the story naturally. Melodrama isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s just misused so often that I think it gets conflated with bad movie-making.
As excellent as the writing and direction are, the film would fall flat on its face without the great cast propping it up. Portman really does deliver the performance of a career, and Kunis oozes sexual magnetism perfect for the Black Swan role.
The film’s ending is perfect, with Nina “killing” Lily, perfecting the maturity and lustfulness of the Black Swan role, and ultimately dying after she “felt perfection”. I liked the placement of the blood on her body, blood being a time-honoured symbol for maturing into a women (whether through menstruation or loss of virginity, either one emphasising Nina’s evolution into an adult women).
Aronofsky succeeds magnificently in putting the viewer in Nina’s twisted mindset, from the lines between dream and the waking world blurring (I’m sure I wasn’t alone in taking certain bedroom scenes at face value), to the surreal allegorical transformation into a swan mirroring Nina’s obsession consuming her in her efforts to succeed. He really is skilled at viscerally displaying psychosis. The choreography is also excellent in the film; I can’t praise choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Portman, her dance double Sarah Lane, and the rest of the dancers enough. While it’s theatricality and melodrama may get over-the-top at times, Black Swan is an expertly-made film on every level.
I give it four and a half ecstasy pills, and a sharpened shard of glass.