In the world of dramatic logic according to most Hollywood films, cozy conservatism and a somewhat puritan desire for tidied messes prevail. It’s a different story in the inherently irrational and mythic worlds of opera and ballet. With Black Swan—possibly the greatest American film of the year—director Darren Aronofsky goes for the operatic card, messing with the heads of his disturbed protagonist and audience. It’s a potentially familiar tale of backstage intrigue and jealousy, a wicked stage mother, and a domineering director.
We follow the story of Nina (Natalie Portman, performing with an Oscar-worthy, razor’s-edge brilliance), a gifted but control-freakish ballet dancer, whose path to her debut as the star of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is fraught with mental unraveling.
But things go awry in the narrative, cross-shifting into unexpected psycho-sexual thriller directions along the way. And that’s when the filmic fun begins, along with basic questions like “Did that just happen?” or “Was that in our heroine’s addled imagination?”
Early in the film, Nina’s head-tweaking director watches our protagonist in rehearsal, with some dismay. “Not so controlled,” he barks at her. “Seduce us.” The idea of finding a balance between control and abandon, between the precision of the white swan and the demonic sensuality of the black swan, becomes a leitmotif in the film itself, which opens in a rough mock-documentary style, with handheld camera work, reminding us of Frederick Wiseman’s great recent documentary La Danse. But rationality steadily gives way to more nagging, obsessive qualities inside and outside the head of our tortured heroine, and we’re put more in mind of artful melodrama and thriller tactics, all mixed up in new ways.
In a way, with this memorable operatic piece of cinema, Aronofsky has worked up a new film, which plays like an darkly captivating mixture of elements from his best-known film, The Wrestler, and his best film, Requiem for a Dream, touching on the physicality and mental gamesmanship of the former with the hallucinatory, neurotic head-tripping of the latter.
A strong undercurrent in the film has to do with the powerful facets of physicality in the medium of dance, and scenes of blood, bruising, and even bone-breaking are the stuff of nightmarish tableaux. Aronofsky has fun amid the darkness, too, casting actresses we’ve seen too little of lately (Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder) and weaving his woozy tale with necessarily chopped-up musical material from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by way of impressive young film composer Clint Mansell.
By the time we reach the film’s intense finale (and the ballet’s finale, not coincidentally), we may feel compelled to soothe our senses with the proviso “it’s only a movie,” or, in this case, “It’s only an opera in other clothes.”