I had been waiting for this movie for some time, I heard rumour of it several years ago in conjunction with Darren Aronofsky's previous creation 'The Wrestler'. In actuality this movie is over a decade in the making but was most certainly worth the wait. As usual it is impossible to talk about a truly brilliant director without comparing and contrasting a recent movie with his previous (after all a director's career, just like any artistic process, is just a learning curve. A style and confidence evolves and each movie is a testament to this advancement). Aronofsky has most certainly developed an assured and idiosyncratic presence behind the camera and I am glad to say that 'Black Swan' definitely feels like his most complete creation so far. This aforementioned confidence was palpable in 'Black Swan', personified by Natalie Portman (who's performance makes her a likely and deserving Oscar winner).
'Black Swan' follows the painful ascent of Nina (Natalie Portman), a devoted ballet dancer on the brink of stardom and becoming the face of her ballet company as the Swan Queen in their latest re-envisioning of 'Swan Lake'. During the process of replacing the previous embittered alpha female (Winona Rider), forming a rivalry with a new fiery addition to the company (Mila Kunis) and constantly trying to impress both her flirtatious company director (Vincent Cassel) and suffocating mother (Barbara Hershey) an inner conflict stirs within Nina. As she attempts to embody the dichotomy of both White and Black Swan and transcend her usually virginally restrained performances, a stark and shocking transformation occurs both within Nina and physically. This is a tragically beautiful and nightmarish tale portraying a sexual and emotional transition akin to that of puberty.
As always Aronofsky's consistent composer Clint Mansell does a wonderful job building an eerie and intoxicating soundscape, complimenting Aronofsky's trademark handycam visual style which mercilessly brings you into the intimate world of the character.
You could view this as the sister movie to 'The Wrestler' and indeed this is what Aronofsky intended-
"I've always considered the two films companion pieces. They are really connected and people will see the connections. It's funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art - if they would even call it art - and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves. They're both performers."
The contrast between these two worlds is fascinating. Where there is a pirouette in one, there is a clothesline in the other. Where a dancer cripples her feet for her art, a wrestler makes himself bleed with a hidden razorblade. Indeed it would be fair to say that wrestling is in it's own way a dance (choreographed and physically demanding) and at times a dance can be passionate almost to the extent of seeming powerful and savage. I think the line between the two is thinner than it may seem at first glance. Another interesting point is that, behind the scenes, the world of ballet is portrayed as a lot more cut-throat and aggressive than that of the wrestling world (where an atmosphere of camaraderie and respect was depicted). But as mentioned by Aronofsky, they are both performers who put their very being on the line for their art and their audience (right down to the beautifully symmetrical applause laden endings linking both of the movies).
Apart from being similar thematically to 'The Wrestler', 'Black Swan' also sees a return by Aronofsky to an earlier visual style and atmosphere (which I am most grateful for). It's worth mentioning that Aronofsky's first movie 'Pi' is probably my favourite movie (and I don't say that lightly). 'Pi' is a stunningly intricate and penetrating piece of cinema which is also deeply philosophical - touching upon religion, mathematics, the stock market and the search for an order within chaos. In 'Pi', a theoretical mathematician called Max Cohen, spirals into a terrifying world of paranoia and hallucination which only intensifies as he approaches his goal. 'Black Swan' makes use of this atmospheric device, making the viewing more intense as you go along and building to a dramatic crescendo.
The other earlier Aronofsky movie I would like to mention in conjunction with 'Black Swan' is 'Requiem for a Dream' - the greatest movie you wont want to watch again (at least any time soon). This is a gut wrenchingly tragic tale of ambition blinding a group of individuals (all regular drug users in their own way) to the pitfalls which lay ahead of them. The suspense, surrealism and desperation of 'Requiem for a Dream' can definitely be felt throughout 'Black Swan' as well as the unsettling feeling that things aren't necessarily going to be ok.
I think very highly of Aronofsky's first two movies but I also appreciate that they are original and unflinching to the point of being harsh and abrasive to watch. As a result they will always be somewhat esoteric and niche (commanding a strong cult following). The reason 'Black Swan' is so wonderful is because it has the edginess of them combined with the warmth and emotional depth of 'The Wrestler' and 'The Fountain' (hence why I referred to it as the most "complete" movie he has directed so far).
Obsession is key with Aronofsky and forms the core of everything he does. Obsession with art. Obsession with substance. Obsession with meaning. You could say he is obsessed with portraying obsession - but nobody does it better. I genuinely believe that Aronofsky shows enough natural flair and versatility to potentially be thought of in the future alongside visionary greats such as Kubrick, Hitchcock and Kurosawa (and again I don't say that lightly).