Darren Aronofsky’s fifth full-length feature is a strange beast – a Machiavellian creature loaded with canny tricks yet never deceitful, a psychological thriller that defies straightforward genre-making, and above all, a thematic amalgamation of the filmmaker’s previous works yet never feels repetitive. Not even a single minute of it. Although the premise of Black Swan would make a scathing cinephile snottily tutting in disbelief – on paper, this reads like a head-smacking, multi-dimensional criss-cross between backstage dramas All About Eve and A Star Is Born, Polanskian paranoid thrillers such as Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, ballet horror Suspiria and the (arguably) ultimate ballet movie of all-time, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes – it never feels derivative nor smug about its self-conscious cinematic background. Instead, all these aforementioned films serve as influence to Black Swan‘s glorious plumage, told in trademark Aronofsky auteur style.
This tale of a repressed, physically and psychologically tormented ballerina could have been told through staunch and rigorous framing, slow-burn shots and Hitchcockian de rigeur. But no, Aronofsky spellbindingly sends cameras pirouetting around complexly staged ballet sequences, portrays the bodily contortions and physical cost of professional ballet in extreme close-ups, and sometimes invade character space like a voyeur, a watchful, mindful witness. The result is a breathless, often harrowing, documentary-like visual ordeal of chipped nails, wrecked limbs and tortured bodies of the New York ballet underworld, far from the fluttery, airy-fairy visions of ballerinas in pointe shoes and pink tutus that the word ‘ballet’ conjures in mind. If you’re thinking of Barbie in The Nutcracker, leash yourself away. Darker and perhaps more gruelling than The Red Shoes, the central heroine suffers more than any movie ballerinas in recent memory as she descends into an existential nightmare of professional obsession, rivalry and mental disintegration.
If anything, this feels closer to Aronofsky’s earlier works Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, where characters suffer hellish circumstances in the former and the anguish behind professional entertainment in the latter. But instead of Ellen Burstyn’s drugged-up, crumbling matriarch and Mickey Rourke’s desolate, craggy face, we have Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, an elegant, sophisticated, beautiful dancer shows cracks in the surface, as she edges closer to horrific, demented hallucinations. The film realistically depicts the tough routines of ballet at day, and then exposes the surreality, without any irony, Nina’s personal hell at night, sprouting black feathers, webbed feet and seeing doppelgängers on sidewalks. These all seem like part of an obligatory checklist for psychodramas, but the screenplay sidesteps stereotypical genre deux ex machinas by artfully incorporating the dualities of the stage ballet Swan Lake where the innocent Swan Queen is tragically usurped by its evil twin sister, the Black Swan. Here, there is barely a frame without any mirror in it – may it be the ballet company’s rehearsal studios, Nina’s downtown flat, bathrooms or clubs – mirrors serve as visual motifs for the blurring of fantasy and reality. Also in this female-centric canvas, we understand Nina’s fragile and frigid personality through her mother’s domineering, obsessive-compulsive control (a stunning Barbara Hershey), or her professional paranoia as she meets her sultry, sassy understudy Lily (Mila Kunis in brilliant bitch-mode) whose sudden rise as her ballet double exerts pressure and rivalry, or her insurmountable anxiety with the company’s recently ditched prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder in a fine, mascara-daubed, embittered supporting role) whose fate serves as a wailing warning to any promoted prima. All characters around Nina is a mirror-image on her suffering, including the only male of the pack, the sly, wolfish, predatory, sexually liberated impresario Thomas Leroy (a fiercely spot-on Vincent Cassel), pushing Nina to her agonising limits, demanding emotional impassivity and a form of animalistic rage required for the Black Swan role.
Portman, in a very emotionally demanding and physically taxing role, captures every moment of Nina’s emotional turmoil without reducing the character into some deluded, melodramatic lunatic in ballet shoes. Her progressive descent into madness is deliriously, breathtakingly precise, commanding sympathy out of her disillusioned subjectivity. We see the projected world around through her subjective view, with Aronofsky barely pulling the only camera used to film this movie away from Portman, reminding us that what we’re seeing is Nina’s POV, a grotesque, unhinged psychosis of her inner conflict. This ability to hold your attention only adds up to Portman’s exceptional skill as an actress, as she transforms from shy, inhibited, naive woman-child to the dark, voracious Black Swan counterpart, climaxing in a genuinely grandstanding finale worth every bit of your dime. As the final shot fades with Nina basking in a concluding epiphany about artistic perfection, it’s hard not to think of Portman delivering just that.
A marvellously dark, protean piece of postmodern cinema. Black Swan is a high-wire, class act both by Aronofsky, whose technical ingenuity lends the film a strong sense of auteurist craftsmanship, and Portman, whose portrayal of a tortured ballerina is so bracingly, breathlessly passionate she owns the entire movie. Hers is an acting accomplishment that would soon become a yardstick for any future Hollywood actresses (or actors) to come.