A retrospective review of Darren Aronofsky’s defining moment
Long gone were the days of the lone wolf raging against the world and succeeding when the 2010s rolled around, cinephiles wanted something more demanding from the new decade; a peculiar trend weaved its way throughout — dramatic rivalries between characters that were so diametrically opposed they couldn’t not go to war, alla The Favourite of 2017, or even battles between characters that had more in common than they might think, by way of Whiplash, in 2014. But neither of these releases compare to Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 masterwork, Black Swan. The film stands aside from its contemporaries for its ability to construct a convincing war between, not two rival parties, but within the mind of a single person.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina, the rising star of a prestigious New York City ballet company. When the company decides to throw a production of Swan Lake, Nina finds herself competing with Lily, a recent arrival who’s nonchalance impresses the performance’s director. Straight out of the gate, Aronofsky pulls no punches as we learn that Nina is a fragile and doted on young woman who’s experience of the wider world is woeful, despite living in New York City. She’s worked hard to be where she is, but at the expense of, well, enjoyment.
Visually, Black Swan is exceptional. We find ourselves sitting in on illicit conversations, greatly personal dance routines, and witnessing Nina’s struggle with such personal and airless cinematography that you feel as though you are privy to something you shouldn’t be. It shapes Black Swan into a near first-person narrative, airtight with intimacy, that allows us to follow Nina close enough that we actually feel an emotional attachment to her, despite her psychological difficulties appearing outwardly inaccessible.
Aronofsky’s exploration into the chasm of self-acceptance is a harrowing one to witness, and it’s a theme that encompasses nearly every character in the story. Beyond Nina herself, who is Black Swan’s shining example of this, Nina’s oppressive mother lives vicariously through her daughter’s success, while Winona Ryder’s antagonistic performance as a one-time ballet superstar, bitterly ageing out, is a cataclysmic reminder of the frailty of success. It’s thematically ambitious when considering many films only apply its themes to the leading character — the difficulty of one weaving itself throughout all the film’s characters should not be understated, with Aronofsky placing the search for self-worth at the forefront of the film’s plot, without sacrificing Black Swan’s stellar narrative.
Nina’s world is small and her vision so narrow that it expertly contrasts the broad Manhattan skyline that towers above her; unwilling to share her time between anything but her mother’s small apartment and the dance studio, Aronofsky creates an image of Nina as near-nocturnal — a feeling of crushing claustrophobia permeating throughout. When she finally does step out into the cities’ endless night in one of the film’s standout scenes, Nina, to her surprise, finds herself recklessly enjoying the dancefloor with Lily, and the audience is offered some respite from Nina’s dictatorial lifestyle. It’s the back-and-forth between Nina and Lily that really makes the scene standout in a film filled with standout scenes. It also makes Black Swan’s characters relatable, the satisfying highs and crushing lows of mental instability showcased in perfect tragedy. Aronofsky explores the paranoia that, let’s face it, everyone experiences now and then, and the film relies on this relatability heavily. The audience will find it difficult not to become engrossed in Nina’s psychological struggle; as she becomes gradually more convinced that Lily is out to sabotage her, so too are we. But we’re never so far convinced of Lily’s guilt that we believe Nina’s melodramatic efforts at one-upmanship are warranted either. Therein lies Black Swan’s crowning achievement — there’s uneasiness in its visual style, uncertainty in Nina’s certainty, and above all else, a commitment to a story that becomes increasingly unsettling, and sad.
Arronofsky’s exceptional ability to make his audience question their own psyche through the eyes of one struggling ballerina makes Black Swan one hell of a journey. A visually suffocating affair, Arronofsky’s escapade into the trials and tribulations of self-acceptance makes for, not only one of the most engaging stories of 2010, but one of the most important.
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Words by Connor Cudmore
Graphics by Betty Woodhouse