Darren Aronofsky said that Black Swan is a spiritual sequel to his 2008 film The Wrestler. When I first saw The Wrestler, I thought the subject matter was a little too down-to-earth for noted surrealist Aronofsky. However, after a half hour, the movie opened up into this touching story of a man’s life, heartbreak and the consequences of being wrong. The Wrestler is perhaps my favourite sports movie for that reason, showcasing an athlete in decline, a lion king near the end of his life. However, the biggest thing that irked me about The Wrestler was the ambiguity of the ending. The movie followed a very clear, very linear progression from A to Z and to find it stopping at Y at the last frame jerked me out of my seat. You know what comes next, but the tiles refuse to fall. Black Swan‘s ending is anything but ambiguous, and if I have to tell anyone how it ended after I hit publish, I will murder them soon after.
Black Swan is the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). Nina is the veteran ballerina in her company, replacing fading star Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder). When choreographer/company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that they are doing a new production of Swan Lake for the premiere show of the new season, he chooses Nina to play the Swan Queen. But waiting in the wings is Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer in from San Francisco as a replacement. While dealing with her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and ever mounting stress, Nina also has to discover her inner black swan–and not lose herself in the process.
There’s no way to say this without saying it right out–Black Swan is plain good. As I sat in the theater, I worried for my enjoyment of the film. I don’t like movies about rich people being inconvenienced, I don’t like ballet, I can relate to women’s issues, but I’m naturally a bystander. This film had practically everything going against it in the “Will Joe like it?” test, but ended up shining through sheer brilliance. I’ve never been this concerned for people who eat perfectly good food only to throw it back up. Black Swan is, among other things, bewitching, engrossing, tantalizing, dark, rich, exuding with a primal energy I didn’t know it could have. It’s a much grittier film than its subject matter would lead you to believe and a much more polished effort than other Best Picture contenders.
Black Swan is less a sequel to The Wrestler than it is a gender-swapped remake. The plot follows nearly a mirror progression, offering brief glimpses of hope as it sends you tumbling down the rabbit hole. It has the identical slice-of-life opening chapter, following Nina through a regular day of hers, the camera behind her shoulders as she walks. People who have cinematography pet peeves, take note: that shot is one of Aronofsky’s favourites. Can’t unsee it now, can you? There’s the big event at the end, there’s the revelation before the final event that motivations are plain wrong. It doesn’t hurt or spoil to have seen The Wrestler beforehand, nor to have intimate knowledge of it. Women finally get their day in the performing spotlight after men have dominated the serious athletics movie for decades.
The ensemble cast in this picture is perhaps the best I’ve seen since Inglourious Basterds and they should be a shoe-in for the SAG award. I’ve never understood the entire world’s obsession with Natalie Portman, but seeing this picture, she should be as lauded as can be. Her performance is brilliantly layered, a veil of innocence and fragility atop rippling danger. However, the real revelations are in her supporting players. I’ve been watching Mila Kunis from the first season of That 70s Show and she has become an incredibly versatile actress in the meantime. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard of Barbara Hershey, whose performance as the doting mother disturbed me in a fundamental way. I hope she’s an actress that will get better with the passage of time. Better and perhaps a better agent.
Vincent Cassel has never hit the right note for me in any picture I’ve seen him in before. Not so here. His theater director is perhaps the least accessible character in the entire film, yet his performance lends a winning humanity to a character that could have been a one-note sadistic theater director. Instead, he’s a man with high standards who knows what he wants and how to get it–even if those methods cross a few boundaries. Winona Ryder also finally hits my mark as Dying Swan Beth McIntyre. In three scenes and fewer lines, she conveys a queen who has built an empire upon her own dreams and is watching them crumble around her. Her tragedy is perhaps more affecting than Portman’s, if only because it’s further developed.
Black Swan has its share of issues, however minor. The cinematography is plain Aronofsky–obsessed less with looking good than with conveying the barest information in the least space. I’m glad for this–it keeps the film raw and to the bone, which is important when making a movie about ballerinas–but it detracts from the surrealist horror sequences. Oh yes. This is a horror film. Don’t let anyone tell you different. The pacing feels more like a novel than a movie, which makes it hard to immerse yourself immediately. The movie stays strictly surface level for too long, relying on your butt in the seat to keep you interested. Sadly, this also makes the movie overlong and draggy at parts. It’s a movie, Mr. Aronofsky–edit it like one.
But after all this, what’s the conclusion about Black Swan? It’s as good as The Wrestler in the same way from a different point of view. If you liked that movie, you’ll like this one. Just like that movie and a few others, it’s a quite good movie that, in the end, rings a little hollow. Maybe as I grow older, I’ll be more satisfied with that, but for now, THREE AND A HALF STARS