Anyone who has seen Jennifer Connolly’s performance in Requiem for a Dream (2000) will know that director, Darren Aronofsky, is not averse to doing disturbing, invasive things to beautiful women in his films. Furthermore, anyone who remembers Natalie Portman’s debut in Leon (1994) or her shaven-headed turn in V for Vendetta (2006) will know that she’s not frightened of taking on challenging, unpleasant roles.
Put these two factors together and you might well expect Black Swan to be a harsh viewing experience, which it is; but it’s also ravishingly beautiful in a cold, controlled sort of way. It is a film which, from the very outset, tells you that it is playing with subtext and metaphor and you better have your Thinking Head on or you’ll get left behind!
We begin with a nightmare, showing Nina Sayers (Portman) dancing The Swan Queen with a jet black, feathered, be-horned ballerino … presumably her inner demon. So, we know from the get go that all is not well in Nina’s mind. When she wakes, she finds herself surrounded by mirrors and reflective surfaces and regards them with suspicion. Even the rest of the corps de ballet is filled with reflections of Nina as every woman in there – from the departing prima ballerina, Wynona Ryder, to the understudy, Mila Kunis – bears a passing resemblance to Nina.
This serves to make Nina increasingly paranoid about jealousy from the other dancers and fearful about her own abilities. It’s worth remembering that Portman has a degree in Psychology, so she brings a wealth of understanding to a role which is, psychologically, very dense. She gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a girl slowly losing her mind as Nina unravels under the constant, unrelenting pressure of being a professional ballerina.
One can sympathise. Aronofsky draws comparisons with the behind-the-scenes life of Randy the Ram, in The Wrestler (2008), by showing just how much pain and sacrifice ballet dancers inflict on themselves in their unending battle to achieve a brief moment of perfection. Even pretending to be a ballerina required Portman to endure months of gruelling training during which, rather like ‘method’ poster boy, Christian Bale, she lost over a stone of weight. The Red Shoes (1948) famously dealt with the physically and psychologically destructive power of dancing and Nina, like Victoria Page before her, is physically up to the challenge of dancing, but is she mentally tough enough?
|Aronosky and Portman on set (Portman's the one in the tutu, by the way)|
Just as Clint Mansell’s score uses Tchaikovsky’s music as a jumping-off point then warps and distorts it, so the whole film’s plot lifts elements directly from the ballet, but re-interprets and re-purposes them. It also draws on the theme of duality you’ll find in the psycho-thrillers of Brian De Palma - most notably in Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976) and Body Double (1984) - which were, in turn, largely inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). And, speaking of Hitch, his most famous piece, Psycho (1960), deals with the dark and deadly power wielded by mothers, a theme he played with time and again and which brings us neatly to Nina’s mother, Erica, played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey.
Initially, Erica comes across as a loving, supportive mother who understands her daughter, having been a ballerina herself but, gradually, we realise that Erica’s determination to stop her daughter making her mistake (of falling pregnant and losing her career) has become an obsession. She has taught her daughter to associate sex with wounding and this has resulted in Nina being fearful and withdrawn. The ballet’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), appreciates the precision of Nina’s dancing the White Swan role but, for the dual role of the evil Black Swan, he needs her dance to be raw, emotional and seductive. Unfortunately, thanks to mother’s teachings, she has no idea how to do that; so he sets about trying to unleash that side of her personality, which puts him in direct opposition with the increasingly flaky Erica. She, like her daughter, is fearful of reflections, yet she is self-destructively drawn to them. She obsessively paints primitive, cruel self-portraits, and weeps while she does so. Well, there’s a workable definition of well-balanced!
|Cassel gets to play sexual predator again, not a French stereotype at all, then.|
You see, then, that the film is about as far from Glee as a show-must-go-on movie can be! It is just as harsh visually as it is psychologically. Even the palette is unrelenting with (apart from one scene in a night-club) almost no colour to be seen. Thomas surrounds himself with stark black and white furniture, which makes its own statement (another motif which I feel Aronofsky has borrowed from De Palma), yet the rehearsal rooms have cinder-block walls and are therefore separated by a labyrinth of grey corridors. Behind the scenes, show biz is all moral shades of grey!
A real surprise here, too, is the way that cutting-edge special effects have been woven invisibly into the fabric of the film. Some of them are punch-you-in-the-face stunning, but you simply don’t notice (or don’t think you notice) a lot of the others the first time you see the film, so skilfully are they employed. This is what effects are supposed to be, aids to the telling of a story, not a side-show attraction in their own right. Any effect you fail to notice is an effect that is working! Aronofsky’s team did their job so well, in fact, that no one noticed when it came to the Oscar ballots. Ah, well.
Over at Obsessed with Film, they have put together an appropriately obsessive argument for why this film is a masterpiece and, whilst I don’t agree with them all, they make some very well argued and well-considered points. They have also embedded a fascinating short video showing how (and where) those special effects were used. The article is here but – and I can’t stress this enough – DO NOT GO THERE until after you have seen the film. Serious, film-ruining spoilers there are, in abundance!
Visually, the film is loaded with coded images: The mirrors, the wings, the blacks, whites and greys contrasting starkly with the red of the wounds … This is not an easy watch. It might give you a headache as you realise you’ve been frowning throughout, trying to keep up with the whirling camera and cascade of short, energetic scenes which typically say very little but mean a lot. It’s a stark, tough and, occasionally, unpleasant film which also manages moments of sublime beauty, visual poetry and even erotica.
As with The Fighter (which Aronofsky also contemplated directing for a while) this film is full of rich, complex characters being brilliantly acted and, again just like The Fighter, all of this is undermined somewhat by the inevitable melodramatic trajectory to the narrative. Whilst being careful not to give away too many details, I must confess I found the ending especially frustrating. It is both the emotional and intellectual crescendo of the drama, but undercuts this with the inappropriately contrived dénouement of a Roald Dahl or Rod Serling television play. Its lineage and critical reception have given Black Swan greater artistic caché than Tales of the Unexpected or Twilight Zone were ever afforded, but its final act is exactly what you would expect from one of their sting-in-the-morality-tale endings, only executed here with less authenticity and more embarrassment.
So, if you are looking for a female-perspective companion-piece to The Wrestler, this fits the bill as a well-made, brilliantly-acted and carefully constructed film. But, whilst it is a huge stylistic leap forward from The Wrestler and clearly has a lot more going on upstairs, it simply doesn’t have that film’s heart.
Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel
Dur: 108 mins