Summary: A finely-crafted noirish psychological thriller, abounding with insights into sex, identity, and art, but occasionally overindulgent.
Review: Imagination is the life of the soul. It enables us to evolve beyond our boundaries. As a million and two film thrillers will tell you, it can also be incredibly dangerous. Enter Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a fascinating neo-noir movie about ballet that I’d dare call the female counterpart to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Similarities abound; the relationship between physical and spiritual maturity, the destructive side of sex (both gender identity and intercourse), struggles against imposed ideals, psychological separation, paranoia — probably more. They’re both disturbing experiences, though for reasons of demographics I found ‘Fight Club’ the more resonant film.
There are important divergences, however. ‘Black Swan’ is about art and sacrifice and not popular culture and violence, for one. Stylistically, Aronofsky’s film is claustrophobic and documentary where Fincher’s is large and hyper-real. ‘Black Swan’ is more intimate, personal, and terrifying in the inescapable moment rather than by implication.
This brings me back to imagination. Nina (Natalie Portman in her best role yet) is a soul struggling for perfection in the world of ballet, and she hopes to fill the lead role of her director’s new version of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Swan Lake’. This version, however, will need her to fulfill the role of the White Swan — innocent, virginal, controlled, much like herself — and the Black Swan — dangerous, sensual, passionate — and the director doubts she has it in her. The film plays as an adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ as Nina transforms into the Black Swan, first in her life and then on the stage. This metamorphosis is a deadly combination of her repressed womanhood and the Black Swan character, her imaginative dreams invading her constrictive waking life.
Many psychological thrillers spring from the idea of personifying unwanted feelings, memories, and behaviors, separating the lead character from their internal torment and therefore dramatizing the conflict in a very visual way. For the cinematically savvy, this can become predictable, taking the punch out of it. Where ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Fight Club’ succeed is in diverting our interest from surprise revelations about identity and conscience to broader external conflicts. ‘Black Swan’s source of tension, the upcoming, life-defining performance of ‘Swan Lake’, is a simple and powerful one. It grips us like a vice, and everything else adds pressure.
Like a classic film noir, ‘Black Swan’ has strong sexual themes, in particular seduction, jealousy, and control. Aronofsky dives into explicit territory, but what makes it work is the nagging question of how much is happening in Nina’s mind and how much is real. Because of the subjective cinematography, we’ve reason to doubt either explanation. I found this conflict’s resolution incredibly cathartic; by embracing her Black Swan persona, Nina gains control over her sexual identity and becomes assertive, granting her equilibrium and freedom from her mother’s implied abuse.
The film also has a strong horror backbone. It plays similar to ‘District 9’ in Nina’s queasy, gradual transformation, which may or may not be real. A quill here, a bleeding fingernail there. And, of course, the doppelganger stalking her in subways and mirrors. This is a film about self-image, which can be the worst enemy of self — or a powerful boon.
‘Black Swan’ is packed with great performances, cinematography, music, and ideas, but it certainly isn’t a film for everyone. I wouldn’t call it the best picture of the year, either. In some places it overplays its hand. Nevertheless, it’s another reason to believe that cinema as an art will continue to survive, and even flourish, no matter how imperfect it is.