Aronofsky’s Modern Tragedy

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This week sees the Australian opening of Black Swan, the latest offering from director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream).  When the troubled Nina (Natalie Portman) wins the roll of Swan Queen in the New York City ballet company’s new production of Swan Lake, what should be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream turns to nightmare as a mysterious new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), threatens to bewitch artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and derail not only Nina’s career but her sanity.

Black Swan is terrific.  I choose this word very carefully.  Though generally understood as a superlative, its roots lie in the Latin terrificus—causing terror or fear.  It is this duality—both pleasurable and terrifying—that makes its application so extraordinarily apt.  At base, Black Swan is an astounding study of human contradiction.

The film’s driving metaphor is the role of the Swan Queen.  Equal parts innocence and grace (the White Swan) and seductive lust (her dark mirror image, the spell-bound Black Swan), it pits competing female expectations against each other.  However, the film goes well beyond this narrow conflict, using its central metaphor as an entry point towards exploring more the universal contradictions of the human psyche.

The intricate interplays of reality and dream, outward appearance and internal desire, innocence and lust are articulated with artful mastery in every element.  Very much a modern tragedy, Black Swan is a sublimation of opposing drives: the intellectually ordered beauty of Nina’s perfect-though-restrained technique versus the instinctual sensuality of Lily’s raw ability.  Cassel’s Thomas, unconcerned with the lasting repercussions of his methods, is the pure artist—as frightening as he is genius—in pursuit of ecstasy at any cost.  He serves as the catalyst, driving the two forces against each other in a catastrophic attempt to create perfection.

Of course, much of the film’s resonance rests on Portman’s Nina.  Her character’s shy innocence is immaculately allied to her growing insanity, ensuring that as the film’s explicit sexuality and horror continue their intertwined upward trajectory, an unrelenting sense of foreboding tightens like a vice on the audience.

While all this alone makes for exquisite psychological suspense, the way that Aronofsky successfully imbues Nina’s emerging madness—for all its terror—with the sense that it may indeed hold the key for genuine transcendence, is Black Swan’s most astounding achievement.  By doing so, the film embodies its own metaphor, creating a spectacle as beautiful as it is horrifying.

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