It’s befitting that a film so vehemently obsessed with the notion of ‘doubles’ and mirror images, both thematically and as a recurrent visual motif, should present itself as the evil twin of director Darren Aronofsky’s last picture The Wrestler (2008), the Cain to its Abel if you will. Both films address the quest for perfection in performance, its protagonists enduring destructive physical and mental excesses, as part of a single-minded dedication to their particular art form. Structurally there’s also little to differentiate the two pictures, and whilst The Wrestler favoured a vérité approach over the heightened melodrama and baroque horror styling of Black Swan, the anamorphic 16mm photography and superficially loose handheld framing link the two films inextricably, with the central framing of the back of a character’s head now seemingly the definitive ‘Aronofsky shot’.
- “It can’t be her. It can’t be. She wants my role.”
- “Every dancer in the world wants your role.”
- “Not like her. She’s after me.”
There’s a lot to admire in Black Swan, and whilst not perhaps the demented masterpiece for which I was hoping, it’s still a riveting psychosexual retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that stands up well against the inevitable comparisons to those other great pictures set in and around the world of ballet, Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, 1948 (the first half) and Dario Argento’s Suspiria, 1977 (the latter), but perhaps less so in its portrayal of a woman tormented by her repressed sexuality, handled so brilliantly by Roman Polanski in Repulsion (1965).
Natalie Portman is Nina, a prim, extraordinarily focussed ballerina under the tutelage of company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). She lives at home with her supportive, but maniacally overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer whose career stalled before achieving any real success. Nina is offered the part of the Swan Queen in Leroy’s new production, a phenomenally demanding role of two halves, that of the White and Black Swan. Technically proficient though her portrayal of the White Swan is, her seeming inability to imbue its negative with the overt sexuality and confidence required of the part, leads Leroy to begin casting glances at company newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) an innately gifted dancer who inhabits the role of the Black Swan to the same level that Nina embodies the White.
“Everything she does comes from within. I guess that’s what makes her so dark, so dangerous”
Paranoid that she’ll go the way of Leroy’s former protégé Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), Nina’s nerves soon get the better of her, and a desperate fear of imperfection in her performance soon manifests itself as a nightmarish descent into psychosis.
It’s certainly not a subtle film, for the most part not in any way a bad thing, the visual and psychological excesses of the latter half are executed with an insane bravado, the negative to the positive control of the initial set-up, and isn’t afraid to completely go for broke. It’s a tone set by Tchaikovsky’s score, which also darkens as it progresses, and the ballet sequences themselves (whilst sometimes favourably framed above the waist) are skilfully presented, both Portman and Kunis showing off a natural grace and exactitude. There’s the occasional tendency to throw in a cheap jump-scare, which a director as skilled as Aronofsky needn’t resort to for effect, but the overriding sense of menace is pervasive, utilising the extremities of the frame to generate tension whilst a Cronenbergian focus on bodily disintegration and physical manifestations of psychological states (finger and toe nails crack and tear, wounds are lingered over) generate a queasy sense of unease and trauma.
“It’s the role, isn’t it? It’s too much pressure”.
There’s some subtly effective use of CGI, goosebumps crawling over flesh and wings sprouting during the performance, but the incessant use of mirrors and fractured reflections pushes the doubling motif a little far. In terms of performance though, Kunis is superb as the confident and sexually aware Lily , Vincent Cassel commanding in the Baryshnikov role and it’s great to see Barbara Hershey back on the big screen as Nina’s dominating mother, even if her switch to the dark side feels a little forced. But it’s Portman’s performance that drives the film, and she more than acquits herself. Desperate to succeed, she follows Leroy’s advice to the letter, pushing herself well beyond her own physical and psychological limits, her sexual awakening (at the hands of Kunis) as terrifying as her descent into madness and delusional paranoia, it’s a performance that should garner a lot of attention come awards season.
Ultimately it’s very much Aronofsky’s film though, displaying the same visual abandon as his previous Requiem For A Dream (2000) it’s masterfully directed and edited, and whilst maybe a little too melodramatic for some, it’s precisely that excess and showmanship that makes Black Swan so effective and confirms his status as the most exciting filmmaker working in American cinema today.
Black Swan – 2010 – USA – 104 mins – Dir : Darren Aronofsky
Screening as the Jameson Gala at the London Film Festival on Friday 22nd, Sunday 24th & Monday 25th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff