When I left the dingy Odeon cinema in Reading after seeing Fight Club in 1999, I felt elated. The movie had surprised and thrilled me, done things I’d never seen on the screen before, and knocked me back in my seat with its last 20 minutes. Fincher’s film was brave and brash and masculine, and — like Palahniuk’s book — it challenged some assumptions about what it meant to be a man in the modern world. The psychoses resulting from the protagonist’s breakdown fuel the movie, and really give you a picture of a person’s mental state, as well as his time and place. Leaving the beautiful Curzon in Soho yesterday, having just watched Black Swan, I was struck by the similarities to Fight Club, and the extent to which Aronofsky has made a really wonderful, feminine counterpart to that film.
Like the earlier story, this one is driven by psychosis stemming from the protagonist’s neuroses. Nina Sayers is beset by all kinds of questions about her femininity: she has multiple body issues which are both shown in the film and hinted at in her past; her relationship with her mother is mutually overdependent to increasingly uncomfortable levels; her sexual repression inhibits her both emotionally and as a dancer. Just as Fight Club’s narrator struggles to adjust to a world in which what is expected of men has become unclear, Nina finds herself unsure in her roles as ingénue, seductress, daughter, and modern woman.
Black Swan’s script is brilliantly crafted to give Nina any number of models to measure herself against. Her mother was a dancer, and now has (too) high expectations of her; the fate of Winona Ryder’s character — who precedes Nina as the ballet company’s lead soloist — serves as an object lesson; Mila Kunis’s new girl to the class seems to be Nina’s shadowy opposite… and then there’s Nina herself. In almost every scene of Black Swan we are presented with multiple Ninas, as Aronofsky’s camera seeks out each mirror in every room. Rarely do we see Natalie Portman without also seeing her doubled, moving differently, from some other angle. It’s a variation on techniques employed in any number of horror movies, but it is still masterfully done here, and pushed to an extent throughout the film’s running time that leaves the viewer dizzy, and a little unsure of what they’re seeing.
Natalie Portman is all over this film. Appearing not just in every scene, but multiple times in most; her face also appears on other characters' bodies, in dreams, on posters…. The profusion of the character, as well as the physical demands of the role, ask an incredible amount. In many respects — though some of the dance scenes show her graceful and athletic — the role of Nina Sayers is an unflattering one, which could only have been accomplished this convincingly by a mere handful of actresses. Though her lack of height gives her away somewhat amongst the other dancers, Portman’s physicality and dedication to the demands of the part make for a remarkable performance which richly deserves the attention it has been receiving.
Aronofsky’s direction is also to be applauded. Though it retains some of the handheld sensibility he developed to great effect on The Wrestler (2008), there is a more directed feel to Black Swan. Whether it is the aforementioned use of mirror images, or the very deliberate (and effective) use of black and white throughout the costuming and sets, there is a lot more to the film’s aesthetic world than was the case with its predecessor. Any given frame of The Fountain (2006) will serve as testament to the fact that this is a director with an eye for rich detail and composition, and like that film Black Swan feels like the product of a considered and masterfully orchestrated vision.