Black Swan is a film like no other. Set in the all too real world of ballet, Nina (Natalie Portman), a shy young perfectionist, replaces Beth in the role of both the White Swan and the Black Swan in a new adaptation of Swan Lake. As she works hard to portray the Black Swan, strange things begin to happen to her.
Nominated for 5 Oscars, the film has something for everyone: suspense, drama, intrigue and a spattering of horror. This fairly short film is well paced so that no moment is wasted. The dance aspect is beautiful, though due to the intrusively close-up hand held shots, you do not often see this.
Black Swan is visually stunning; with remarkable special effects that are so real you recoil with the memory. Mirrors play a large part in the film, and the way in which they are used is very clever, albeit rather overdone. The monochrome set and dress for the entire film gives it a dreamlike sense to begin with, which only intensifies as you watch.
It is also controversial, with the oppressive relationship between the worried mother and the rebelling daughter turning cruel when Nina slams her door purposefully on her mother’s fingers. The sex scenes are sometimes disturbing and uncomfortable; the film shows the ballet director seducing Nina at one point. In fact, the story is based rather a lot on Nina’s virginal state. Another scene shows female masturbation whilst yet another is a lesbian sex scene, both involving the main character.
Director Darren Aronofsky does a brilliant job of blending high culture with the surreal and horrific. Although the film is very different to many others, we can draw parallels between Black Swan and his other films. The paranoid quality of both Requiem for a Dream and Pi can clearly be seen here. The Wrestler is very much like Black Swan, due to the main character showing devotion and obsession in their profession. The characters both push their bodies to the limit in order to be the best.
If put into a category, Black Swan is first and foremost a psychological thriller, though many would argue that it is in fact a horror. By the end of the film, you are certain that the main character must be insane. But even then it is unclear what she hallucinates and what she does not. She seems to imagine a double of herself that haunts her throughout, making her feel vulnerable and scared. Her constant practising cripples her physically and mentally. Her hunt for perfection by the exploration of her dark side slowly drives her insane.
It is vague as to what is actually happening to Nina until the finale, where she hallucinates that she sprouts black swan wings. We clearly see that the audience cannot see the wings that she believes she has. The plot of Swan Lake is then cleverly intertwined into the poignant ending that almost brings a tear to your eye.
The film is relatable for many people who compete in dance, and yet at points it is overtly sexual and quite grotesque due to the body horror that is used. The film is not one for the squeamish, as there are scenes that would make anyone’s stomach turn as well as horror-like sequences. The most disturbing scenes are ones where she hallucinates bizarre things happening to her: she peels back the skin on her finger, her legs seemingly break to look like swan legs and she violently murders her colleague.
Natalie Portman is clearly the best actor in this film. She is perfectly cast as the protagonist, and portrays the transition from the white swan’s innocence to the black swan’s sexuality very well. She can do no wrong in the scenes where she hallucinates scary, violent and sexual encounters and appears incredibly naïve when she depicts the sweet and innocent girl at the beginning of the film. Her captivating performance means that we travel through the story with her. Her emotions are ours and she displays them without making her insanity too obvious.
On the whole, Black Swan has the mark of something special. It cannot be suitably labelled or easily forgotten. It is a compelling and dark story of perfection, sexual repression and mental illness.