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Black Swan

#509 - Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky, 2010

A young ballerina starts to suffer a nervous breakdown around the same time that her ballet company makes her the lead in their upcoming production of Swan Lake.

I think it was around the time that Black Swan came out when I realised that Darren Aronofsky was something of a one-trick pony. As of writing, I've seen all his films save for Noah, but they all feature a common thread in that each film features a protagonist having a breakdown, each time for a different reason. Mathematics, drug addiction, a dying spouse...these all provided other Aronofsky protagonists with their own reasons for collapsing. However, while these were all sufficiently different at first, when Aronofsky ended up making The Wrestler and Black Swan back-to-back it was not hard to feel like he was repeating himself a bit. Both films share a common thread beyond the downward spiral narrative common to every other Aronofsky film - they both focus on professions that are physically and emotionally demanding in the name of providing extremely theatrical but entertaining performances. The Wrestler may not have shied away from showing the inherent falsity that has characterised professional wrestling as we know it, but it definitely demonstrated the serious duress that it takes on Mickey Rourke's ageing has-been as his dedication to the one constant good in his life proves hazardous to his health and relationships.

Black Swan is superficially similar in how many of its elements seem to be deliberate attempts to provide a contrasting counterpart to The Wrestler. Instead of the low-culture thrills of pro wrestling, there's the artistically respectable world of ballet. Instead of a middle-aged legend fallen on hard times, the protagonist (Natalie Portman) is an up-and-coming ballerina whose star is on the rise. Instead of Rourke trying to rebuild his life by connecting and re-connecting with people, Portman is caught in a Kafkaesque situation where every other character seems to have an ulterior motive when it comes to interacting with her. The parallels between the two films do reflect somewhat unfortunately upon Black Swan (to say nothing of other obvious influences such as Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue), but Aronofsky and co. do their best to distinguish it in its own right. Portman understandably earned an Oscar for her work as a ballerina who is clearly struggling with mental instabilities that are in no way aided by her former ballerina stage mother (Barbara Hershey) or her rigid dedication to being a perfect ballerina that ironically makes her an imperfect choice for the role of the loose and uninhibited Black Swan. Throw in some potentially destructive influences such as a sleazy director (Vincent Cassel), an embittered has-been (Winona Ryder), and the company's free-spirited new recruit (Mila Kunis), and what you have is a recipe for disaster...and perfection.

Portman certainly puts in the hard yards to showcase the rigours of ballet training while also demonstrating a considerable range of emotions as both the training and her delusions start to take their toll on her. The style in which they are captured is worthy of note as it starts small with details such as out-of-focus paintings with shifting eyes before blossoming into self-harm that disappears instantaneously, Portman's face appearing on other characters' bodies, and eventually full-on body horror. While this was all especially striking on an initial viewing, a repeat viewing hasn't done it a lot of favours. Some of it is still effective, but some of it just looks silly. The same goes for the twisting, turning narrative - while not knowing what was real or imagined (within reason, of course) worked wonders the first time I watched this, it doesn't hold up during the second time. Black Swan definitely demonstrates enough competence to make it a somewhat solid piece of work, but since a lot of what made it so well-liked (especially by me) was its constantly surprising nature, this is unfortunately not one of those films where being aware of what the film had in store made it any better. Much like its protagonist, it tries for perfection and achieves it once, but that's all it does.