There are not enough words in the English language to describe the praise Darren Aronofsky deserves for Black Swan. It was one of the most talked about and sought after films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (which I managed to snag a ticket for), and for good reason – it is a masterpiece that is just as much beautiful as it is nightmarish.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has toiled for years within a New York ballet company, always pushing herself. The company has fallen under hard times, and director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) makes the swift decision to put on a new rendition of the classic Swan Lake. With the company's go-to lead pushed into retirement, Nina is quickly selected to be the lead in the new ballet. With competition arriving in the form of new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), and the demanding desire for perfection from both Thomas and her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina begins a journey into dark uncharted territory.
Black Swan is an enthralling and visceral experience from beginning to end. Aronofsky has used what he has learned from making the raw and unflinching The Wrestler and the cerebral horror and incredibly disturbing Requiem for a Dream, and has crafted a film that you will simply not be able to take your eyes off of. He builds up rather slow, but right after that first moment of off-the-rails insanity, he delivers one hell of an incredible piece of cinema. One that is not easily able to be classified to any one genre.
While you may have read suggestions that Black Swan and The Wrestler are two halves of the same film, make no mistake at looking at it any further beyond the comparison of being about two people toiling within two very different forms of art. Black Swan is never a low budget character piece. It is a film that navigates between being thrilling and horrific at the same time. While the horror elements start to take more prominence in the second half (specifically the rather squeamish elements of body horror, done in a way that would make David Cronenberg proud), the film never lets one completely overtake the other. It manages to maintain this sense of dread, darkness and rather graphic wound/injury infliction throughout.
The visuals and editing are the drive of what helps make the film so well done. Contrasting blacks and whites so frequently give the obvious hints of good and evil, innocence and darkness. But Aronofsky likes to throw in hints of ambiguity at every turn, changing the colours for each character depending on the scene, and depending on what they may or may not be doing. Even the scenery and set design is in plain black and whites, always making the audience guess the true motivations and intentions of both character and creator. Adding in the element of reflection, both in others and the self (mostly through mirrors), only helps compound these feelings of ambiguity and confusion. It will consistently keep audiences thinking about what is being shown and what is actually going on. The subtle visual effects and astoundingly well done score only help add to the greatness.
Aronofsky also deserves recognition for the film's lean running time. When so many films are often far too long and dragged out, this film maintains a sense of momentum that never gets lost at any point. The film's slow points are never dragged out, merely well padded out for the shift from Nina being innocent to adrenaline soaked horror as she descends into the realm of darkness. Rather gracefully, Aronofsky manages to balance the goal of Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin's script to blend Nina's tale with the story of Swan Lake itself, and never loses sight or direction at any instance. This is bravado style filmmaking at its finest, and more than suggests that the brilliant direction in Requiem for a Dream was not a fluke.
Portman, who has shown her acting merits before in the likes of Closer, delivers a startlingly intense and beautiful performance as Nina. At once you can see the innocent, sexually repressed little girl who just wants to please her mother, and the sexually depraved fallen angel, inching closer towards independence and adulthood. She is very clearly not "well" in the beginning of the film, and as the film progresses, you can practically chart her 180-degree reversal in character. She is downright terrifying in many instances, and more than proves her worth as an actress. When she finally dons makeup late in the film, her transformation from a once promising talent to a full blown powerhouse talent becomes simply marvelous to watch.
The supporting cast only helps to further complement Portman's extraordinary performance. Cassel is amazing as always as the slimy and twisted Thomas. We never really get more than hints at his true intentions, but Cassel makes every moment on-screen simply amazing. Kunis delivers a level of depth I never thought was possible for her. She commands the screen with every new scene, and this performance will easily act as a starmaking role for her. Hershey is even better; practically stealing the screen away from Portman's magnetizing performance. She makes Erica into that monster of a character everyone loves to hate, and brings a level of intensity to every mere moment she appears in. If anyone is even nearly close to equaling Portman's performance, it would be her. Despite only appearing for a few minutes, Winona Ryder is amazing in her role as the former lead ballerina Beth. I just wish she could have chewed up more scenery.
Black Swan is an incredible film from beginning to end, and will not easily leave you. It is a masterpiece of unheralded success, and is easily the best film I saw at TIFF. Watch out for it at Oscar time – it just may steal the show.