Principal Cast : Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millipeid, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemmingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan.
Synopsis: A young ballet dancer, Nina, dreams of being cast as the White Swan in Swan Lake. A fellow dancer arrives and Nina begins to suffer pangs of jealousy, since the newcomer is more adept at playing the Black Swan, usually a dual role for one dancer. As Nina fights to keep her part in the production on track, she finds a dark side to herself she never knew she had, sending her spiralling out of control.
Anytime I see a film with the words “directed by Darren Aronofsky”, I just know I’m in for a mind-bending trip somewhere completely amazing. The man simply has a knack for creating visceral, powerful worlds all his own – from the black-and-white world of Pi, to the fractured nightmare of Requiem For A Dream, to the trippy WTF status of The Fountain and into the ring for The Wrestler (a film I plain just didn’t like), Aronofsky never, ever takes the easy way out for story or characters. He’s not a director known for delivering a bread-and-butter film, and I applaud him for this. Black Swan, which is touted as a psychological thriller, snagged a Best Actress Oscar for Natalie Portman, and after finally getting the chance to watch it, it’s easy to see why. Portman owns this film, lock stock. Whether she actually performed all the dancing, or was replaced by a double, or whatever, isn’t the point (according to the “making of” on the BluRay I watched, there were several moments in the film in which a double did perform the more difficult routines, but you know, that’s okay!) – what matters here is the emotional journey we’re taken on in Aronofsky’s frightening look into the world of professional ballet.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer at a New York ballet company, a company about to begin production of their season opening version of Swan Lake. Their headline act, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) has been forced into a retirement of sorts, leaving the lead role of the Swan Queen – in which the performer will play both the White Swan and the Black Swan during the show – open. Desperate to impress, the uptight Nina auditions for the part and gets it, although she must fight with company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to get it. Another dancer, fresh from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives, and immediately makes an impact as a “free spirit” who seems better suited to the Black Swan role Nina so desperately wants. Nina, who lives with her controlling ex-ballet dancer mother (Barbara Hershey), begins to have hallucinations, dreams which eventually threaten to overwhelm her career as she has both nightmares and fantasies about her life, the people in it, and the potential to descend into the darkness of her soul to win the dream role.
Black Swan is oppressive in tone. It’s a nightmare of a film, as our lead character seems to be going crazy with hallucinations – or, are they? – about turning into a swan, and it’s the impetus of this frightening introspection which drives the film. There’s no moment of light here, no sense of relief, as we’re dragged into the audience of Aronofsky’s version of one of the worlds most famous ballet productions. The role of Nina, with whom we open the film discovering she might be a self-harmer, is spectacularly delivered by Natalie Portman. Her Oscar for the role is in no question, that’s for sure. Portman, an actress I usually find rather wooden, outdoes herself here, as the travels the road into madness thanks to a terrific script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. Her portrayal of Nina, a woman under extreme pressure and facing the prospect of being rejected in the world she loves, is sublime, capturing the frantic, coward, emotionally crippled and inner-strength character so very very well. Following her journey is tough, make no mistake, because at no stage after the mid-point of this film do we know whether what we’re seeing is reality or fantasy: such is the trippy way Aronofsky has with us. The use of reflection in Black Swan is pivotal, both as a story device and a subtle reference to the fractured mind of our heroine: moments we see where faces, images and reality warps and bends as Nina’s emotions shape herself, a seemingly unending series of horror-style vignettes designed to keep us off balance and wondering just where she’s going as a person. What Portman does here that needs to be highlighted is to keep it real. Nina could have been the generic insane character we’ve seen done to death before, and Portman quite easily could have taken us on the time-honoured journey into eating bugs off the floor and dribbling from the chin to sell it to us – instead, she delivers a powerful inner strength onto the screen in a way I’ve not seen from her before. You can see her mind working, see her take this trip right there on the screen, and she absolutely nails the part to perfection.
Perhaps not quite so much up to the challenge is co-star Mila Kunis, in the role of Lily, a free spirit who seems to flit in and out of the story and never quite makes the impact Aronofsky hopes she does. Is she on Nina’s side, is she working against her, is she purely an imaginary creation of Nina’s increasingly fragile mindset – who knows, but Kunis is either out of her depth, or unable to deliver the performance of the role whereby she feels genuine within the context of the film. She felt like a set of hiking boots trudging across parquet flooring. Male lead Vincent Cassel, whose last impressive work I saw was in Gaspar Noe’s execrable Irreversible, plays the slimy director of the company with relative ease, and there were moments when you could see him charming and smarming his way through the females of the group; yet, the script gives us nothing on him, other than he’s meant to be the emotional foil for Nina to bounce off. Barbara Hershey, as Nina’s mother, could very well be a Norman Bates-esque character, although who’s to say. She’s a passionate woman in her own right, and while having two extremely driven women living under the same roof always tends to lead to a conflagration, Hershey’s canny enough to know she should show a little restraint.
I mentioned before the use of reflection – mirrors – in Black Swan. If there’s a facet to this film which should be studied by film students, it’s Aronofsky’s use of reflection to assist drive the story. There’s mirrors and reflective surfaces everywhere in this film; from the dressing rooms to the rehearsal spaces to Nina’s apartment and even the blasted toilets, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re always seeing behind, around and next to our characters virtually all the time. Often, it’s what’s in the reflection that’s more interesting than the straight-up performances. Multiple reflections, dulled reflections, dazzling reflections – every kind of reflective surface evokes a response subliminally in the viewer, as elements of Nina’s personality come alive even moreso thanks to deft handling of well positioned props. The claustrophobic nature of Nina’s bedroom and her home, diametrically opposed to the broad spaces of the dance floor, work with each other in a weird way to generate a kind of sense of isolation in Nina, and this serves to heighten our awareness that all is not right in her head. I send big kudos to the entire production team for complementing Portman’s wonderful performance with excellent background subtleties.
I approached this film thinking it to be some kind of melodrama or straight-up fictional biography only one step away from Step Up 3. As it turns out, I grossly underestimated Aronofsky’s ability to weave a horrific, brutal story into some intensely amazing imagery. Black Swan isn’t an easy film to enjoy, in as much as it’s a film less about enjoyment than being taken on a journey – often, forcibly, I think – but what it is is a stunningly effective mind-f*ck of the highest order. Unlike many pretenders to this genre, Black Swan isn’t silly, nor does it delve into the hysterical madness of being stupid for the sake of cheap scares or twists, but rather, it’s an evocative and imaginative work set in a place you’re unlikely to ever think about using as a set-piece for mental horror. Truth be told, this film could have been terrible, and were it not for the performance of Natalie Portman, definitely wouldn’t be as nuanced as it is. As it stands, however, Black Swan is a terrific film designed to make sure young girls never want to take up ballet. In a sense, I’m okay with that.