Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis.
Numerous films have dealt with the pressures and rivalries within the high pressure world of ballet where personal lives often take second place – Michael Powell’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes, Robert Altman’s The Company and Herbert Ross’s melodramatic Turning Point, etc. Set against the background of a ballet company Black Swan crosses elements of those classic films with Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s compelling study of sexual repression giving way to madness, and the bitchy back stage rivalry of a Showgirls or All About Eve.
The film explores the conflict between good and evil, obsession, and sexual repression, which are all central to Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake. Black Swan is a melodrama that essentially sees the narrative of Swan Lake played out in real life.
The New York Ballet Company is mounting a modern ballet based on the classic Swan Lake story, under the direction of the egotistical, driven and manipulative Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Nina (Natalie Portman) is chosen to play the important role of the Swan Queen. The role itself actually incorporates a dual role – that of the pure virginal white swan and the sexually provocative evil twin black swan. While she is technically perfect, Thomas cruelly pushes her to lose her inhibitions to better embody the darker nature of the dual role.
Nina lives at home in a small apartment with her smothering over possessive mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former ballerina who gave up her career to raise her daughter, a toxic environment. There is also a developing rivalry between Nina the confident Lily (Mila Kunis), a new arrival who also covets the role. As the intense pressure mounts on Nina the lines between reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred. Struggling with her inner demons and her increasing paranoia, Nina seems headed for the mother of all breakdowns that mirrors the swans’ split personality.
Director Darren Aronofsky has always been a daring director willing to take unconventional risks, from his debut, the low budget black and white sci-fi thriller Pi, through to his corrosive Requiem For A Dream and his mind numbing failure with The Fountain. He briefly tasted mainstream success with his recent The Wrestler, which temporarily revived Mickey Rourke’s career. In this dark psychological melodrama, Aronofsky again seems willing to push narrative conventions aside, but its dark edges and dramatic flourishes may not always appeal to some audiences. Aronofsky has said that the film is about “transformation,” and he cleverly uses images of broken mirrors to reinforce this theme. He imbues the key settings – the Lincoln Centre, Nina’s home, and even the New York subway – with a palpable sense of menace. He uses hand held cameras to get in close, which lends immediacy and a strange intimacy to the material. Clint Mansell’s evocative score is a variation on Tchaikovsky’s own Swan Lake, but distorted and effectively menacing, which adds to the film’s unnerving quality.
Although set against the deceptively gentle background of the world of ballet, Black Swan shares a few thematic and visual similarities with The Wrestler, as it is also set against the backdrop of a visceral and physical arena which can make or break careers and dreams. The rigorous training, the endless practise to perfect routines, devotion to techniques, and the physical demands all take their toll on the young girls who aspire to become ballerinas.
Aronofsky has a visually impressive style, but it is in eliciting superb performances from his cast here that he excels. Portman has always impressed, but here she delivers an outstanding raw and vulnerable performance in one of her most demanding and emotionally draining roles. Portman apparently trained for months to be credible as a ballerina, and it is that sort of dedication that wins acting awards. And Winona Ryder continues her career resurgence with a brief but striking turn as Beth, the bitter veteran ballet dancer brutally cast aside by Thomas in favour of the youthful Nina. Hershey brings a hint of insecurity and neurosis to her role as Nina’s overbearing mother.
Black Swan is a twisted tour de force and Grand Guignol horror that hits with great impact, but will not be to everyone’s tastes.