Black Swan is a cruel and terrifying film. It plumbs the depths of one character’s fears and insecurities and makes us reflect on our own. It is not at all concerned with ballet, but rather the study of a character who achieves tragic proportions. And as with all tragedy, it is built upon one character’s fatal flaw.
“The only thing in your way is you,” the artistic director of a New York ballet company tells Nina (Natalie Portman). The artistic director is Thomas Leroy (played Vincent Cassel) and he issues this advice at a crucial point in the film.
One of the strongest aspects of Black Swan is how it is not about the world of dance, even though it is anchored in it. To say that it is filled with dance-movie clichés is to miss the point. Here is a thriller that is more Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion rather than The Red Shoes. The film is almost certainly set in Nina’s mind as she pirouettes to a breaking point that is possibly physiological or psychological—or even both.
The plot follows an agonizing sequence of events that unfold from the moment Nina is unexpectedly chosen to dance the Swan Queen, the principal role of the Swan Lake. She must overcome several fears to liberate herself artistically and mentally and the key to this liberation is something unstated and hidden, though in plain view for us to see.
Part of the impact of this film comes from its star: Natalie Portman who communicates Nina’s delicacy, anguish, ache and innocence with a poignancy that is at times painful to watch. Her portrayal anchors the film within a subterranean world filled with Freudian impulses that at times almost overwhelm the viewer, mirroring a similar process that arguably occurs in Swan Lake itself.
The first time I saw the film, I thought it cruel: too painful and tragic. Helplessly, we watch Nina make crucial mistakes, and hold our breaths in fear that she will literally fall with every step she takes. Why would a director (Darren Aronofsky, who did the equally poignant Requiem for a Dream) want to subject viewers to something like this?
But then, as I watched a second time, I felt that perhaps my reaction was my own. Perhaps Aronofsky has achieved that which art achieves best: trouble and terror. On second viewing it became clearer that a key cipher in the film is Nina herself. As with the great heroes, almost everything that stands in her way is a creation of her own making. Her navigation of this, and the beauty that she discovers at great pains, are both the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
RATED: 4 stars ****