Black Swan is Marmite. I’ve spoken to people who love it, people who hate it, people who were grossed out by it, people who simply didn’t understand it. I loved it, or at least, I loved most of it.
Darren Aronofsky is a great director, managing to bridge the gap between art house and mainstream without compromising his vision. You only need to look at his awesome debut, Pi, the brutal, bleak follow up, Requiem For A Dream, and the unfairly panned The Fountain to see his unique visual style. The Wrestler offered something different; full of shocking imagery, it saw Aronofsky go back to basics, using a grittier, less polished style. In Black Swan, he manages to combine elements from his previous films, (gritty realism, muted palette, hand-held camera work) to create a startlingly raw visual approach. Here, he uses it to tell the story of Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer who’s ambition is stretching her to breaking point physically and psychologically.
We meet Nina, a delicate Natalie Portman, gracefully gliding across a dark stage but then it suddenly cuts to the harsh reality of practicing- crunching ankles, cracking toes and excrutiating poses that make it all look so effortless.
Nina is given the opportunity to perform as the lead dancer in the White Swan, under the critical eye of Vincent Cassel’s choreographer, Thomas Leroy. As she delves in to the role, she realises she has to find her passionate ‘dark side’ in order to fulfill the role of the Swan- dark and sensual Black Swan; innocent and pure White Swan.
It takes steps in to the supernatural, horror and pschological thriller in equal measure, offering surreal imagery, shocking moments and a disorienting feeling of uncertainty as Nina struggles with the pressure of her role and the battle she is fighting wiht her own psyche.
However, as this is a psychological journey, the lack of back story is a shame, and makes it hard to grasp exactly what led up to the action in this film. Why is she so closed off from her piers? Where does her shyness come from? These things are alluded to, but there is not enough character development, begging the question: why is this happening? Making the whole film feel a little cold.
And what of the ballet? Well, the actors have clearly put a lot of work in to looking the part, but the cinematography lets it down slightly. I was expecting more movement from the camera during these scenes, a bigger ‘wow’ factor and more long shots taking in the environment. if I had a major complaint about the film, it would be the lack of long shots generally, making it hard to put these dance moves in to any kind of context. It adds to the uncertain tone of the film, but makes it unnecessarily confused.
Nina’s relationship with her mother could probably have its own film, but this dynamic is only sketched, as are the rest of the characters around her. Mila Kunis does solid work with what she has, and Cassell does a perfectly good job too, but these characters fall by the way side because this is the Natalie Portman show. She commits and convinces in every scene, making it impossible to imagine anyone else ever being able to fill this role. But this amazing performance does not make it an amazing film.
If it had spent time developing some of the minor characters, their back stories and limited the quick-cut editing in the dance scenes, then it could have been great. As it is, it’s just (just?) very, very good.