For a film that is hoovering up awards nominations so hungrily, it was more than a little surprising to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan attracting such terrible reviews and critical derision in some quarters. And then I saw it. It’s one of those films that divides opinion fairly starkly, mixing as it does qualities of trash and art. On the one hand, it’s a drama about ballet, built around fine-tuned, highly-wrought, Oscar-bait performances, magnificent costume design and nervous but precise camerawork. On the other, its a histrionic genre piece with sensationalist sexuality and all the subtlety of a stubbed toe. But can it reconcile those two sides of itself and become a beautiful hybrid creature, or will it stay a mess of ill-suited parts? I like the view from up here on the fence…
Black Swan is the film that synthesises all of Darren Aronofsky’s prior concerns into a satisfying whole – self-harm, obsession, addiction, parent-child tensions, the terrors of performing, the masks and make-up people apply to cover the fractures in a collapsing self behind a veneer of poise and control. Why didn’t he think of this before? It would have saved us all from The Fountain (it’s started becoming fashionable to defend that particular piece of bloated, cod-philosophical pap. Please stop it. It was never as terrible as critics first assumed it to be, but aside from that excellent sequence of Hugh Jackman being engulfed by moss (!), it remains an unrestrained mess that aimed at inscrutable wisdom but was actually quite an obvious love-through-the-ages fairy-tale). Aronofsky has also noticed that, despite its high cultural chassis, ballet has a big noisy engine going full-throttle underneath it: accordingly, he inflates his plot to similar levels so that it attains a level of high-pitched, high-wire, knife edge madness that matches the big-gesture swoop of Tchaikovsky’s original, with its evil sorcerors, handsome princes, magical curses and suicides – Swan Lake is literally a tale of white and black: how much subtlety do you want in your adaptation of it? A hysterical text needs a hysterical adaptation, but Aronofsky has also drawn out, like guts from a carcass, the undercarriage of ballet itself: we get to see the stretched muscles, torqued limbs, cracked nails, skin rashes, sore eyes and banjo-string sinews that go into producing the images of gliding grace on the ballet stage. Watching the tension build in Black Swan is like waiting for a tendon to snap.
Natalie Portman’s performance is the best of her career. Nothing she has shown us before could prepare audiences for the level of commitment, or the nuances she brings to a part that deliberately places obstacles in her path: it is obviously a role that requires great physical strain, but with its amplified scenes of hysteria, it could easily descend into farce if the mask of serious torment were to slip, or if Portman were to give into campery and swagger. Instead, she manages to move from a girlish fragility to a sculpture of ferocious femininity with sufficient controlled and managed intensity to offset the schematic order in which those transitions are signposted in the screenplay. Hounded by mirror images, doppelgangers and hallucinations, trapped in a malevolent, booby-trapped mise-en-scene, she could easily have played this in one long asthma-attacked reaction shot. Its to her credit that, in the face of Aronofsky’s torments (he has obviously bought into the idea of the suffering artist and doesn’t want to lose his deposit), she manages to take some Natalie time and give her Nina a believable inner life – she’s not just dragged to her fate, but instead backs into it, and you can see her struggling to calculate the pluses and minuses of each new dilemma, always looking for a way out of her ever-thinning portfolio of options. More than most films, Black Swan visualises the strains on its star’s body as a powerful analogue of the pressures piled onto women forced to shape and choreograph their physique to match others’ desires, mistaking their own ambition for a wish to please the people watching them.
Critics of the film will point to its high-strung hysteria, but it is from the high perch of the horror genre that Black Swan is able to achieve its greatest leaps. It goes initially for the uncanny effects that come from hallucinatory kinks in the everyday: the cinematography preserves glosslessly the dull surfaces of the grey rehearsal spaces, as if to contrast it with the wide-open dreamspaces of the live stage, and it is only the glimpses of supernature (fleeting encounters with Nina’s doppelgänger, moving eyes in photographs) that hint that this will not be a traditional backstage drama. Instead, the film plays the revelatory aesthetics of the backstage story off against the histrionic horror tropes to create the illusion of experience invaded by heightened, vivid imaginings.
The case for:
Although Mr. Aronofsky focuses on her head, shoulders and arms, mostly avoiding long shots that might betray a lack of technique, Ms. Portman does most of her own dancing (and plausibly, at least to this ballet naïf). The vision of Ms. Portman’s own body straining with so much tremulous, tremendous effort, her pale arms fluttering in desperation, grounds the story in the real, as do the totemic Lincoln Center buildings, the clattering subway and the grubby, claustrophobic apartment Nina shares with her mother. Together they create the solid foundation of truth that makes the slow-creeping hallucinatory flights of fantasy all the more jolting and powerful. Much like the new version of “Swan Lake” that Thomas creates, “Black Swan” is visceral and real even while it’s one delirious, phantasmagoric freakout. (Manohla Dargis, New York Times)
As a study of female breakdown, Black Swan is the best thing since Polanski’s Repulsion. But, in fact, with its creepy Manhattan interiors, its looming, closeup camera movements, and its encircling conspiracy of evil, it looks more like Rosemary’s Baby, particularly in cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s brilliant continuous shot in which Nina makes out with a random guy in a club, then wakes up to what she’s doing and, freaked out, blunders through murky winding corridors and out into the night air – there seems no difference between inside and outside. Everywhere is claustrophobic. […] Black Swan is ionospherically over the top, and some of its effects are overdone, but it is richly, sensually enjoyable and there is such fascination in seeing Portman surrender to the madness and watch her face transmute into a horror-mask like a nightmare version of Maria Callas. It is exciting, quite mad and often really scary. (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
Director Darren Aronofsky has many gifts, but subtlety has never been one of them. He’s at his best when he’s teetering right on the brink of shrieking excess, and viewers who don’t like their drama pitched very high will probably run screaming from his latest movie, Black Swan. Everyone else is in for a spellbinding, wickedly entertaining treat. Set in the cutthroat New York ballet world, Black Swan is several movies in one: a backstage look at the physical demands of a dancer’s life; an impassioned ode to artistic creation; a trashy mother-daughter melodrama; and a psychosexual thriller complete with raven-haired doppelgangers, lesbian trysts and fistfuls of spiky black feathers. Mostly, it’s an example of go-for-broke filmmaking, and even in the moments where the movie goes completely bonkers, it still manages to feel like a triumph. (Lee Ferguson, CBC News)
Truly, this is a director at the top of his craft: Aronofsky masterfully draws attention to the brute physicality of the ballet – straining limbs, skipped meals, torn ligaments and bloodied feet. The narrative is taut throughout, framed in stark blacks and whites, and propelled with a constant nervous energy by cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s tight cinéma vérité follow shots. The sound editing is similarly claustrophobic, amplifying Nina’s every rasping breath or compulsive scratch of skin. And Portman is already generating Oscar buzz for her performance: possibly the best of her career. Aronofsky strives for philosophical complexity with Black Swan, a film that, at its heart, is about the sacrifices performers make to create great art – the dual processes of creation and destruction. Along the way, it becomes one of the more psychologically disturbing horror films of the year – and it is on this point that critics will be divided. Black Swan is truly an incredible achievement: a beautifully shot, highly entertaining mix of high and low art that is guaranteed to mesmerize audiences. (Ben Landy, Hollywood.com)
Libatique’s cinematography is clean and graceful, but it finds the grittiness of 16mm and the unbridled speed of the ballet when it needs it. Mansell’s score is beautiful and elegant, but ferocious when we need it to be. Aronofsky’s tale, like that of the director’s play, is nothing more than another take – but it’s executed with such relentless brutality that it feels new. He breaks bones, erodes reality, and viciously confronts us with sexuality and surreal moments that crawl up our collective spines with manners both meticulous and reckless. Mastering the quiet and the violent, Aronofsky may have given us his own version of perfection. At the very least, he’s given us a new monster – a werewolf story for a refined audience. In which a 90-pound ballerina stops the very beats of our hearts not just with the beauty of her moves, but with the brutality of her tale. (Neil Miller, Film School Rejects)