Perfection comes with a price, Nina (Natalie Portman) driven to the brink of self destruction and total madness in search of it. It’s not her fault, contained to a small world by her abusive, unrelenting mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who allows Nina no freedom. It’s Erica’s way of dealing with her own failed career, passively living through her brilliant ballet dancing daughter.
The emotional toll on Nina presents in many forms, winning the lead role of “Swan Lake” and breaking down as the pressure builds. She seeks friendship, different lifestyles, self mutilation, and more almost as an escape from her own self-inflicted misery. She suffers from visions, sometimes violent, that ask the question of what is real.
It’s there to break down the viewer as much as Nina herself, a constant barrage of curveballs when the film seems to be aiming straight, or even establishing a sense of normalcy. Black Swan is dark and unnerving, following a character not unlike director Darren Aronofsky’s prior The Wrestler. Both are depressed, seeking any legitimate way out, but end up spiraling almost out of control as they lose grip on their emotions.
The difference is Black Swan doesn’t have those moments of happiness, nothing for Nina to truly enjoy. She doesn’t even seem to enjoy the dancing, frustrated when it fails to be perfect. The pressure is too much, and she crumbles.
This story of mental anguish and breakdowns is filmed beautifully, countless master shots keeping a stable, steady camera spinning around the actors for what these days is an immense amount of time. It wants to involve those without a passion for ballet by capturing the motion and the flow, those scenes of training sessions and rehearsals never boring to look at.
Aronofsky pushes his actors too, Portman stunning in this slightly unreal reality, fighting with herself as much as she fights her mother. Emotions never feel diluted or over wrenched, Portman showcasing amazing control on a difficult, complex character and material. All involved follow the same path, Mila Kunis producing the free spirit role, trying to pull Nina out of her sheltered existence as Nina sees it as an assault on her hard work.
Like The Wrestler, it’s possible to see the ending as ambiguous, the wild array of special effects and scripting twists prior enough to dizzy any viewer. It begs the question if Nina found what she wanted, or simply found an escape, but either way, it’s not crucial to a complete narrative arc. Both directions offer closure.
Aronofsky, with two exceptions, always goes for 16mm as a format choice, almost everything he does with the stock a winner. There are inherent limitations to a lower resolution film stock, but it produces an image with constant life and texture, while pushing any hi-def encode to the limits. Fox delivers a great one though, preserving a natural, crisp grain structure with little artifacting, other than chroma noise on brighter walls of Nina’s home.
Colors veer cool while carrying a bold, deep richness to them. Flesh tones are wonderful, natural, and pure. The film is intentionally situated with blacks, grays, and whites to suit the material, everything obviously carefully chosen, the few other colors avoiding general primaries. Nina dons a light, faded pink sweater, her room is littered with a limited array of pinks, while the club carries some teal that might be the closest this one comes to saturation. That makes it all the more impressive that these hues stand out as they do, or maybe it’s merely because they’re backed by monochromatic choices.
Detail is what it is, or in other words, it comes into play when it can. By its nature, 16mm can rarely produce vivid definition anywhere other than close-ups, the grain picking up most of the work to keep the appearance from looking flat. Black Swan contains countless close-ups that impress though, preserving fine facial detail, costume patterns, and individual hairs. Nothing here appears muddy, always natural.
Aiding everything is a blistering layer of black levels, producing enriched shadows and tremendous dimensionality. Even bright lights tend to get sucked into their power, Black Swan living up to its namesake by keeping the image intentionally dim or in rooms where light struggles to make a play. That’s fine, because there’s a consistency at work with the black levels, and that’s everything this transfer needed.
The music… wow. This blistering DTS-HD mix presents itself with staggering, raw power, reaching peaks on both ends that is simply everything uncompressed audio was meant for. From the bombastic low-end of the dance club to the quieter moments of a rehearsal, there is a wonderful, rich fullness to it all.
It never misses a beat either, utilizing each channel not for mere ambiance and surround bleed, but for motion. You’ll hear the piano sweeping through the soundfield at 29:28, distinctly placed in the left front as the camera moves in on Nina. The transitions are flawless and subtle enough that they don’t break the immersion. There are echoes to the dialogue as well, a brilliant, clean wrap-around effect bested only by the chatter inside the club. Black Swan’s mix is one that allows each element to play nice with the other, achieving a perfect balance between fullness and dramatic quiet.
No extras as this review is based on a rental exclusive; Fox never sends screeners in time for the retail release.