Rating: MA 15+
Running Time: 108 minutes
Black Swan is a psychological thriller exploring the ying and yang within all of us and the extremes they may take using the backdrop of the story of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to illustrate this. Set in a prestigious New York ballet company whose next production is Swan Lake, ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is seeking a new principal dancer to replace ageing lead, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder). This dancer must be able to portray both White and Black swan parts. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is considered to be the consummate White Swan with pure technique and beauty however she has competition from newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) who has the sensuality and fire that Nina lacks for the demands of the Black role. In Nina’s quest for perfection amidst her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) who lives somewhat vicariously through her promising ballet career, Nina’s controlled life inevitably starts to fracture.
Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) holds you in its tight visual grip from start to finish and you are never quite sure what is real and not, just like Natalie Portman’s character Nina. The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin is suspenseful, complex, cerebral and very clever in its use of the doppleganger. Even the staging of the film fits in with the three act piece of Swan Lake, to the finale of the third act. Aronofsky brings the script alive and delivers a hauntingly visceral piece with beautiful visual styling and editing to underscore the pure and dark themes. The lighting and the stage scenes are brilliant. However the horror elements depicting her descent into madness and disconnect with herself are unnecessarily grotesque and over the top at times. It actually detracts from this being a better film. It is too jarring in its transposition between the beauty of ballet and the beast within, with more subtlety required. Even the styling to delineate between the black and white motifs was just too obvious. Aronofsky seems to have the desperate need to portray ugliness underneath the veneer of glamour, as with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. He also is fascinated with obsession, artistic devotion, dedication and discipline in his wrestler/ballet dancer expose. They not only push their physical body to the limits performing with injuries and physical pain but also psychological barriers exist and they too must be overcome but at some cost. The competition to be the best, to be perfect, to be thin and desirable, always under the microscope constantly criticised and analysed must ultimately take its toll. There is no balance and as she lets go, as is demanded of her, she pirouettes out of control. Her psychological battles manifest physically. It becomes difficult to watch at times but then you can’t turn away from the car crash unfolding in slow motion.
Natalie Portman (Closer) gives an outstanding performance as Nina, alternating from one extreme to the other as her tightly controlled perfectionism is rocked. Her ballet skills are also convincing along with her co-star Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) as a result of their six month intensive dance training. Vincent Cassel (Irreversible) is also good as the demanding and sexually manipulative ballet director trying every trick to eke out the best from his dancers as is Barbara Hershey. She is simply scary as the overprotective mother who partly blames Nina for the demise of her ballet career and surreptitiously suffocates rather than supports her daughter’s attempts at success.