Darren Aronofsky’s haunting psychological thriller arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. After it’s great success on theatrical release there will no doubt be a rush of eager punters taking the plunge and buying the movie in the hope that the magic they witnessed in the confines of the cinema can be repeated.
For those who missed it on the big screen, Black Swan charts the mental and physical torture that an aspiring ballet dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), puts herself through in order to take on the duel lead roles in Swan Lake. This requires her to portray both the innocent and pure White Swan and the dark and sensual Black Swan. The ballet is directed by the commanding Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who makes it his personal mission to release the inner ‘Black Swan’ in Nina and encourages her to explore her sexual nature. Thomas has an apparent reputation for seducing his leading ladies and his former flame, the now grudgingly retired and clearly unstable Beth (Winona Ryder) serves as a chilling warning to the fate that could befall Nina. Nina soon befriends the enigmatic Lily (Mila Kunis), who has recently joined the ballet company and quickly sets about ruffling various feathers with her relaxed and distinctly untraditional approach to ballet. Confident and sexually aware, Lily is everything Nina is not, and when she is revealed as Nina’s understudy, tension begins to mount as to whether Nina’s inner Black Swan will reveal itself or whether she will be eclipsed by Lily.
Arguably the greatest strength of the film was its stellar cast who each throw themselves into their roles with gusto and succeed in ensuring the whole affair doesn’t become too melodramatic. Portman won the Best Actress OSCAR for her role and it’s hard to quibble with the accolades she received. As the film progresses and the dark and twisted side of Nina’s character begins to emerge, Portman skilfully captures her gradual descent into madness. The naïve girl that we see at the beginning of the film becomes poisoned by the demands of unleashing her inner Black Swan which eventually transforms Nina into a paranoid and unhinged star.
The scenes between Nina and her overbearing mother are particularly unsettling. There’s a great dramatic shift from their almost sister-like friendship at the films beginning to a state of distrust and almost rivalry by its end. Their gentile home life gradually becomes tainted by Nina’s evolution into the Black Swan and soon the scenes where she returns home become extremely tense moments. Barbara Hershey is superb in the role of Nina’s mother, creating a character who takes such a hands-on approach to her daughter’s life that ultimately she is undergoing a severe psychological trauma of her own. There are hints that her own fear of rejection and past failings are shaping her over protective nature and we are never too sure whether or not she really has Nina’s best interests at heart. There’s a telling exchange between the two where she mentions her own dancing career to Nina who abruptly replies with “what career?” Her mother fixes her with a resentful stare and fires back “the one I gave up to have you.”
Cassel gives a powerhouse performance as the commanding Thomas. He is at times a brash bully and even during times of relative calm he is a brooding, menacing presence. His psychological deconstruction of Nina over the course of the film is played perfectly by the two leads and his unflinching demand for total control is perfectly captured by Cassel’s strutting performance.
The central theme of Aronofsky’s film is the internal battle between dark and light. This comes to the fore not only in the performance itself, where Nina must find the contrasting side to her innocent persona, but also in the personalities of both Nina and Lily. Lily is routinely dressed in black; she is self-assured, worldly and seemingly leads Nina astray. Nina however is always dressed in virginal white; she is sheltered and completely unaware of the big wide world beyond the bubble-wrapped existence created by her mother. We are never completely sure if she can inhabit the Black Swan without irrevocably losing her White Swan purity.
The other key issue running through Black Swan is the single minded determination to succeed at the art form you love. This is of course reminiscent of the director’s earlier cinematic effort The Wrestler. While ballet and Wrestling may be two very different beasts, they do both take a great physical toll on those who partake in them. Much like Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, Nina immerses herself into the activity she loves and does whatever it takes to obtain the fan’s adoration no matter what the cost. The haunting final performance is definitely comparable to the Ram’s pained final fight with both scenes capturing the gruesome toll their respective passions take on the protagonist.
The psychological deterioration experienced by Nina is wonderfully captured by Aronofsky who incorporates hallucinatory camera tricks and blurs the lines between dreams and reality to leave the audience constantly second guessing and on the edge of their seat. So much of the film could well be in Nina’s head and we are left to determine for ourselves how much of what we see is real. This sense of uncertainty comes bursting to the fore at the film’s climax and the final performance that occurs amidst Nina’s final epic breakdown is a bravura finish that resonates with you long after the credits have rolled.
Black Swan was a visceral and visual treat on the big screen and I can safely say that the dramatic tension and sense of foreboding that made the film such a unique experience at the Cineplex has undoubtedly translated well onto its smaller-screened companion. It is challenging and at times deeply unsettling to watch, but Black Swan is an extremely memorable piece of work that certainly rewards upon repeat viewings.
Black Swan is out on DVD 16th May 2011.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin, Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel
Runtime: 108 min