When I hear the words dance film I immediately think of feel-good fare like Flashdance or Save the Last Dance which features heroines who suffer emotional issues only to turn their lives around by the end of the film. That description doesn’t really apply to the dance film which was nominated at the 2011 ceremony, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which messed with my mind more than Dirty Dancing ever did.
Aronofsky had long been associated with films that took its characters in strange directions whether it be the drug-addicted ensemble in Requiem for a Dream or Hugh Jackman’s time-traveller in The Fountain. Aronofsky had made his most traditional film two years earlier with The Wrestler, a film that resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke and featured a rather traditional narrative. However, with Black Swan he was back to his old tricks by playing with the audience’s perceptions of the lead character as she slowly descended into madness. The aforementioned protagonist is Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers who at the film’s opening is quite a timid ballet dancer albeit one who has been kept isolated by her over-protective mother. Nina’s life changes when she is cast as The Swan Queen in her company’s new production of Swan Lake, after she bites the lip of director Thomas. Thomas is keen for the rather cautious Nina to embody the qualities of the Black Swan and let herself go a little more. However, as she attempts to put herself into the shoes of a dark demented character her mental health suffers as a result. It doesn’t help that the company’s newest recruit Lily is seemingly out to get her and from time to time it seems that she wants to steal her identity. The scenes between Lily and Nina are some of Black Swan’s most confusing as our heroine imagines several scenarios between her and the new dancer that aren’t real at all. In fact Lily’s face sometimes changes into that of Nina herself with the resulting hallucinations causing the ballet dancer’s ultimate breakdown.
Combining ballet dancing and emotional trauma isn’t a new concept in cinema with 1940s Best Picture nominee The Red Shoes treading a similar line. But Black Swan ramps its action up to eleven by portraying the downfall of an initially isolated character. Aronofsky’s manipulations of the cinematic medium are great with the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces in Black Swan being particularly impressive. It’s clear when a director has a certain vision for his film and Aronofsky certainly seems to have carried it off, especially in the final scenes which depict Nina’s downfall into madness. As somebody who’s a ballet novice I felt the end sequence that depicted the production of Swan Lake itself were magnificently choreographed and enhanced my understanding of earlier parts of the film. The film’s only win came in the Best Actress category with Natalie Portman being rewarded for her performance as the increasingly paranoid Nina. When I first saw the film I wasn’t too keen on Portman’s turn but upon this viewing I noticed intricacies in her portrayal of Nina that I hadn’t seen before. Portman deserves plaudits for simply appearing in every scene but more than that she took her character on a psychological journey that most actresses would’ve struggled with. I understood every element of Nina’s character with Portman excelling both as the sheltered dancer and the more uninhibited Black Swan.
There were other fine performances in Black Swan most notably from Mila Kunis, who kept the audience guessing about Lily’s motivations till the very end. I think Kunis put in a fabulous job especially seeing as she was playing two characters; the real version of Lily and the one that Nina had imagined in her head. Meanwhile, in only a few scenes, Barbara Hershey managed to turn Nina’s mother into possibly the biggest villain of the piece. Although at times it’s a bit too pleased with itself, I think Black Swan is a film you can enjoy immensely if you just go with it. Aronofsky is a director that I’ve always admired and I’m glad that Black Swan was the film that finally put him on the map. Black Swan can be described in a lot of ways but one thing you can definitely say is that it’s not your typical dance film.