At around the midway point in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama, one character upon meeting our cracked protagonist Nina (Natalie Portman) who has just won the coveted lead part in Swan Lake remarks – “You must be so excited. Are you freaking out?”
The line is delivered with a sly casualness and apparent lack of guile by Mila Kunis who plays Nina’s dark alter-ego if you will, Lily; the free spirited nymph to Portman’s tightly wound princess.
A sledgehammer line such as this, of which several recur throughout the movie; seemingly throwaway are extremely pleasurable shards of coal black comedy, a nod to the audience that is surely intentional on the part of the director and the screenwriting team of Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J Mc Laughlin. These moments serve as light relief from the films practically non stop mood of pressure cooker hysteria.
So what is Black Swan? Trashy horror film? Softcore lesbian sex romp? Psychological melodrama? Backstage expose?A Love/hate letter to the Performing Arts? All of the above but at the centre of it’s oh so twisted heart is the slow mental disintegration of a born perfectionist, a talented but highly strung dancer at a prominent New York ballet company.
Raised by a domineering mother, bullied by the substitute father figure Thomas (Vincent Cassel) the haughtily arrogant artistic director played with outrageous confidence by Vincent Cassel, tormented by her own insecurities and finally threatened by the emergence of Lily, a preternaturally sensual rival dancer. The manifest sum of all of this stress, trying be both White Swan (Innocent, pure, obedient) and Black Swan (Liberated, sexual, grown up) – triggers a journey into madness and paranoia in which Aronofsky echoes the works of De Palma, Argento, Polanski and Cronenberg yet somehow managing to keep a disciplined, tight rein on the material and make it his own.
This is another tale of spiritual and physical transformation from Aronofsky, themes that pulse right through the heart of his work. That transformation leading to a moment of transcendence and ecstasy, usually achieved at some cost. In Black Swan Nina has given up almost everything, including most significantly sexual pleasure to attain her professional goals.
Portman’s fearless, go for broke performance which must now rank as one of the definitive portraits of female hysteria Aronofsky hints that in Nina’s desire to be the lead in Swan Lake may in fact not even be her own. In one scene, Nina is confronted her predecessor Beth (Winona Ryder) who drunkenly accuses her of whoring herself to get the role. Nina responds in kind with uncharacteristic steeliness – “Not all of us have to.” The look on Nina’s face is one of shock and surprise as if she has inexplicably lost control, revealing a hitherto unseen dark side. This occurs throughout and suggests that malevolent forces may be at work here, that an act of possession has occurred without her knowledge and those closest to her may be responsible.
At it’s best, Black Swan seesaws between sheer terror and absurd black comedy that suggests vintage Polanski of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant and Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot the film in intimate, grainy handheld 16mm. This proves highly effective for the most part in translating Nina’a point of view and this up close intimacy gives the audience no escape from Nina’s downward emotional spiral. There a handful of quick establishing shots but anymore would probably take us out of Nina’s mindset and diminish the sense of the characters world unravelling before our eyes.
The mobility of the camera also creates an immersive, sensory feel during the ballet sequences especially in the film’s outrageous climax placing us right there on the stage and we are allowed to appreciate the hard won beauty and grace of the art form. Tchaikovsky’s music- appropriated in part by Aronofsky’s regular collaborator Clint Mansell -sublime and rapturous, is another vital ingredient in the film’s creative mix; the magnitude of the drama within Swan Lake reflecting the tragic, operatic descent of Nina herself.