Aronofsky returns with fantastic effort

By Drew Hunt

The art of dance has often been explored in films of varying success. The most sterling example remains Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s lavish masterpiece “The Red Shoes,” a film in which vibrant energy and vivid cinematography belie a sinister tone unbecoming the gracefulness of ballet.

In his latest film, “Black Swan,” director Darren Aronofsky treads similar ground. In equal turn, he examines the physical and psychological turmoil inflicted upon his main character Nina—superbly portrayed by Natalie Portman—as she wrestles with the pressures of portraying the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet “Swan Lake.”

But unlike “The Red Shoes,” Aronofsky brings the frenzy to the forefront, giving his film a Polanski-esque horror twist that manages to be as frightening as it is beautiful. Thrilling in every sense of the word, “Black Swan” is a strong effort from the director. Coupled by what is without question the best performance of Portman’s career, the overall experience is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Carrying a similar aesthetic seen in his previous film, “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky’s handheld camera follows Nina as she grows increasingly unhinged after receiving the role she’s been striving for her entire life. Thoroughly convinced of her ability to portray the White Swan, artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) pressures her into fully embracing the character of the Black Swan, a decidedly more puckish entity at odds with the submissive Nina.

Soon, art begins to imitate life as another side of Nina boils to the surface. She becomes paranoid and erratic, entirely certain that newcomer Lilly (Mila Kunis) is gunning for her spot in the production, and Aronofsky spins his yarn with intrigue and mystique.

In her performance, Portman infuses the character with sober vulnerability—felt most effectively in scenes where Nina is at her most erratic—that transcends anything she’s done in the past, even taking a method approach as she honed her body for months in order to match a physicality similar to a seasoned ballet performer. This dedication is felt on screen as she completely embodies the role, delivering a performance that may net her an Oscar.

As he continues his career, Aronofsky’s films become increasingly more focused. Despite the cult status of “Requiem for a Dream,” the film is often too erratic for its own good, while his follow-up, “The Fountain,” is borderline unwatchable. His 2008 film “The Wrestler,” however, was a decidedly more human tale, told with compassion and permeated with sympathy for the plight of artistry.

Not unlike Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram,” Nina is a performer so dedicated to her craft that her own physical well-being becomes an afterthought. She becomes so enthralled in her art her reality becomes skewed—a sort of tasteful subversion of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby,” one of the many odes to Roman Polanski seen in the film.

This provides avenues for Aronofsky to truly experiment with genre because “Black Swan” operates superbly as a startling psychological thriller in addition to being a skillful character study.

Aronofsky examines the line between art and reality, if there is one at all. “Black Swan” finishes with a 15-minute re-creation of Swan Lake, where the director’s thematic musings come together in masterful fashion. It is with this final sequence he pairs the pinnacle of Nina’s dementia with her most profound performance, and it could be that Aronofsky sees the space between art and reality—and life and death—as the summit of artistic expression.