Pursuit of Perfection: Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky is a different kind of horror filmmaker. From his hallucinatory nightmares in Requiem for a Dream to the wrath of God in Noah, he has an eye for what scares us. With 2010’s Black Swan, he gave us a different kind of horror film, one that deals with the horrors of perfection. Set at a NYC Ballet Company and starring Natalie Portman as Nina, an up and coming star, Black Swan is one of the more effective horror pictures of the last decade, one that doesn't shy away from Aronofsky's love of the surreal and ridiculous.
Beginning at the start of the season at a ballet company, Nina desperately wants the lead in the upcoming production of Swan Lake, a role that her director feels she isn't quite ready for. Pushed to achieve perfection by her overbearing mother and the stress of ballet, she slowly starts to lose her sanity, leading to some supreme moments comprised of jump scares and legitimate body horror. That's what makes Black Swan effective as a horror film - Aronofsky's clear affection for a classic jump scare. As the movie progresses, they become more frequent, whether it's eyes moving in a painting, Nina’s face being superimposed onto Mila Kunis, or Portman's terrifying realization that she's been masturbating with her mother in the room (a major WTF moment). Jump scares can work when used well and when they're not the only type of trick a film has up its sleeve and luckily Aronofsky doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the movie’s psychological approach.
Black Swan has been called psychological horror by many audiences and here the moniker is apt. Nina's home life is anything but stress-free and the same goes for her time spent at the company. At home she's constantly striving to best what her mother achieved in her own ballet career and at work she deals with accusations of sleeping her way to the top once she's finally cast in the role of the Swan Queen. Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) commands the screen when the film allows it, presenting a loving but controlling presence in her home. Having given up her career when she became pregnant with Nina, there's a jealousy and palpable anger in some of their exchanges that works to the film's advantage. At the dance studio, Nina is threatened with the appearance of Lily, played by Mila Kunis (Bad Moms) in her best role, a new member of the company with a complete disregard for the rules that Nina just can't fathom. She quickly becomes her main rival, getting cast as the alternate Swan Queen, something that doesn't exactly help her psyche.
It's then that the picture starts to get “weird” as Nina begins to have numerous hallucinations, from a strange rash to toes that seem to fuse together to a tawdry, drug induced sexual escapade with Lily, Black Swan is a veritable cornucopia of body horror in the classic Cronenberg vein. It's at this point that Nina comes to the terrifying realization that Lily might not even be real, and just a vision brought on by her relentless pursuit of perfection. It's a gamble that Aronofsky plays that works thanks to the talent involved. Had these sequences been presented by a lesser director they might come off as hokey and unbelievable, but here it's almost too effective. You're just as confused as Nina as these things happen to her, almost at a loss for words. It's why Black Swan is one of the more effective and out there entries in the genre, it's weird but oh boy it's entertaining.
Comparisons have been made with Argento’s Suspiria, but other than having to do with ballet dancers, that reading doesn't exactly hold up. Other than both films being gorgeously shot, there's really not much to discuss. What can be said is that Aronofsky is clearly a talented director in the horror genre, and Black Swan is proof of that. The man knows his way around a scare while also being able to tell a compelling story, we all strive for some form of perfection in our lives, we just might not be willing to go to the lengths that Nina goes through.
Black Swan is the rare horror film to receive multiple Oscar nominations, as it was up for not only Best Picture but Best Director as well. At the end of the night it only brought home one statue; Best Actress for Natalie Portman, a well deserved win for what was up to that point, a high point in a career of high points for the actress. From Léon The Professional to Heat to V for Vendetta, Portman has always been impressive, even when the material was beneath her (I'm looking at you, Star Wars Prequels). Almost as a rule, the Academy looks down on Horror, Sci-fi, and Comedy, as those genres carry a stigma of cheapness about them, a stigma that is completely unwarranted if you know where to look.
An intensely scary and unnerving experience, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is one for the ages. A film that keeps you guessing until the credits roll and one that keeps you talking about it years after release. Not only a highpoint for Aronofsky's career, it's a highpoint for the horror genre in general, and a picture that's worth a ticket to the ballet.