From its opening scene, a dream sequence with a hint of foreshadowing, its clear that despite featuring star names likes Natalie Portman and Winnona Ryder, Black Swan isn’t your run of the mill movie in any sense.
Throughout the film one word springs to mind in all aspects of its style, claustrophobia. From the tight close ups on the actors faces to the narrow corridors of the theatre to the small pokey flat Portman’s Nina shares with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), director Darren Aaronofsky gives you the sense for there is no escape either for us or for his Swan Queen.
While the claustrophobia and sense of unease are there from the off, things otherwise seem to get going in relatively ‘straight’ fashion as we are taken into the famously intense life of an up and coming ballerina taking on her first lead role a production of Swan Lake. In this it feels like a companion piece to Aaronofsky’s previous picture, The Wrestler, but looking a new performer rather than a veteran – as it progresses however Black Swan becomes something very much other.
Throughout its first hour we get hints that all is not as it seems; flashes of a dual Nina on a subway and in the street, hallucinations of blood and the beginnings of a streak of almost body horror. This half of the movie increases gradually in intensity as Nina explores the duality of the Swan Queen role where she must be the pure and innocent white swan but also embody the darker black swan.
The second half of the movie ramps this up with the nightmare and fantasy sequences increasing and, for a good portion, it’s never entirely clear where reality ends and Nina’s mental inner life begins.
As Nina, Portman is astonishing, maintaining an intensity throughout that is essential and becoming entirely lost in the role as it explores not only the obvious performance process but also the transition from adolescence to adulthood alongside an almost Argento level of surreal horror. Particularly impressive is the way she is filmed and we see the physical nuances of her performance in greater detail than many films show.
Mirroring her are a cameoing Winona Ryder as Ruth, the dancer she is replacing as lead, and Mila Kunis as Lily, the new dancer seemingly looking to already usurp Nina’s position. Kunis in particular delivers another good, if smaller, performance that again leaves audiences guessing as to exactly what they may be seeing for most of the film.
Black Swan’s third act ups the intensity further and the already impressive dance sequences, shot on steadicam and maintaining the close up feel, draw even tighter as we literally get on stage with Nina and can see every nuance of her emotion through the opening performance as the horror aspect comes even further to the fore.
In its dying moments Black Swan leaves us with a sense of ambiguity it sets up in its opening and is something I particularly enjoy in films. While, for the most part, this looks like a film set in ‘the real world’ there are things that suggest this is a fantasy entirely set in a reality of its own creation. The likes of Marvel are often credited with feats of universe creation but what really impresses is when a film tells its own story in a world merely half a step away from ours and I feel that is what is going on here.
No explanations are offered and the audience is left with a stand-alone story that does what it does and bends convention of genre and filmmaking itself to create something unique that crosses the boundaries of art and entertainment. Its something I see in the work of Kubrick and here from Aaronofsky and makes for a film that while intense, dark and at points brutal, is also entertaining, engaging and genuinely impressive on every level.