The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…
The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.
It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.
Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.
For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.
Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.
The Score: 9/10