The Black Swan: Blurring Genres

A brilliant and frightening tour de force, Aronofsky’s surreal new masterpiece has sparked controversy for its version of the ballet world

The Black Swan, which opened in Austria on Jan. 21, tells a tale that is at once breathtaking and terrifying. The story of Nina, a perfectionist ballerina who’s decent into psychosis exposes the audience to a nightmarish cascade, blurs the lines between reality and psychotic trance. After the forced departure of his prima ballerina, Thomas, the company’s artistic director, chooses the ambitious but fragile Nina to star in his new, “stripped down, visceral” production of Swan Lake, requiring her to portray both the white swan and her evil sister, the black swan. Long sheltered by her overprotective mother and pressured by Thomas to loose herself, the prudish Nina must tap into a primal sexuality so foreign to her that her that it comes only at the cost of her own sanity.

The Black Swan is a singular accomplishment that denotes the maturing of director Darren Aronofsky as an artist. His new film is in many ways a synthesis of his past work – the tragic aspirations of The Wrestler; the obsession-fuelled path to self-destruction of π and Requiem for a Dream; the surreal imagery of The Fountain. These aspects of Aronofsky’s style have been fine-tuned, producing a mature, refined work. The Black Swan is the most nuanced and elegant of Aronofsky’s imaginings of a descent into madness.

The film draws upon a slew of influences; for instance, it retains the necessary ballet hallmarks of Powell and Pressburger’s classic, The Red Shoes. But the artistic tradition that The Black Swan continues goes much deeper. In its use of sinister urban landscapes, baleful interiors and threatening corridors, it invokes early Polanski – the piece-by-piece female breakdown of Repulsion; the claustrophobic paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby; the sexuality and social pressure of The Tenant. The camerawork, with its stifling close-ups and protagonist perspective, is evocative of Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The music is hypnotic and intense, a mix of Tchaikovsky and The Chemical Brothers.  But subtle cues and low hums expertly add to the menacing undercurrent, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

This cinematic cuvée produces a work that is not easy to categorize, but this is likely the point. The transitions from slow-burning psychological trances to nihilistic bouts of depraved eroticism to moments of sheer terror that outclass most horror films are abrupt, and only heighten the hallucinatory delirium that the movie induces. What holds these manic successions together is a pervasive sense of dread, an ominous and foreboding ambiance that engulfs the film.

Because of the momentum of the madness – an Aronofsky trademark – the audience is forced to actually experience the film’s phantasmagoric odyssey, not just observe it. Much like the Swan Lake production in the film, The Black Swan is visceral.

As Nina, Natalie Portman gives a performance of astounding depth not seen since her brilliant portrayal of Alice in Closer. Vincent Cassel, as usual, is devilishly enjoyable as Thomas Leroy, who carries himself with all the pomp of a predatory cat. Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey, is at times outright terrifying, shining a light on the causes behind Nina’s repressed state. And Mila Kunis’s performance as Nina’s uninhibited foil and competitor elevates her to a new level of serious cinema.

But The Black Swan has inspired its fair share of scorn. Debates have ensued about the clarity of the film’s artistic vision, and about the portrayal of the ballet world. Some have praised Portman’s authenticity, but others have judged her body and dancing as inaccurate to the point of insult.

But does this compromise quality? Rocky does not cease to be a good film because of its superhuman portrayal of boxing, nor does Apocalypse Now because of its fantastical, Conrad-inspired depiction of Vietnam. Accuracy in film is only a necessary if the film endeavors to be accurate – and in a decidedly surreal outing like The Black Swan, criticism based on realism simply misses the point.

Many also felt that the inclusion of stereotypes such as bulimia and a misogynistic male director were in bad taste. This might be true, but it is not the responsibility filmmakers to educate audiences on the real world of ballet. For Aronofsky, ballet is simply a vehicle – a platform from which to delve into a tale of psychological derangement and morbid obsession. Ballet offers an environment rich in storytelling potential – but The Black Swan is not a ballet movie.

Regarding Nina’s perverse psychological state, it’s understandable for ballerinas to be miffed about unflattering artistic license being taken involving your profession, but it is important to stress that Aronofsky is not a journalist, and The Black Swan is not a documentary. Nina is not your average dancer, rather an unstable one who went over the edge.

To assume that Nina’s schizophrenic psyche will be interpreted as the typical mental state of ballerinas is not giving the audience enough credit. The Black Swan’s dreamy flourishes are so incredibly surreal, to mistake it for reality would be silly. Cinema is about art and fantasy, about storytelling and expression. In this, The Black Swan delivers. Scoring five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s unnerving masterpiece is not suffering critically for any of its apparent flaws. It’s ok if the ballet world has its reservations; historians hated Shakespeare in Love, and we saw how well that worked out.

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