Make no mistake about it the themes explored in Darren Aronofsky’s psycho chiller are nothing new, and if you are a film buff of a certain age, or have a certain craving for the likes of David Lynch, Dario Argento and Mario Bava the visual techniques, set design and atmospheric score will be very familiar to you. So just what is it that makes this awards courting movie so unique and stand out from the pack?
Lynch is a good place to start because like his last two films (Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire) we open here with a fairly straight forward plot with Natalie Portman’s Nina picked to play the lead in Swan Lake, but struggling to find her inner demons in order to pull off the dark side of the character that being the Black Swan. To make matters worse she has an understudy (Mila Kunis) who appears to be stalking her, an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and the shadow of a drunken predecessor (Winona Ryder) hanging over her. From here the director twists things around taking us on a fantastical trip of darkly lit creepy rehearsal spaces, seedy night clubs, and psychedelic illusions. A bit like Inland Empire the central character at one point does seem to travel across several different time zones, and the audience too feels the trippy feeling as they leave. But the true genius of Aronofsky’s vision is to take the basic theatrics of the ballet and performance world and use it as a device for a very extreme genre piece, skilfully blending the worlds of horror, thriller and even melodrama into a vivid package.
All this is not to say that it cannot be read as a study of the extreme pressures of achieving perfection in Ballet. In fact much in the same mould as The Wrestler in Black Swan the camera is constantly pressed up against its subject as she performs recording the sharp scraping of blades, the blurry surroundings and the echoes of peoples voices. It is a very personal, up close view as we experience the world through Nina’s eyes. And the impression I got was of someone living in a bubble isolated from the rest of the world and suddenly unsure of if she can believe or trust anyone else. The key to Nina is that some of what she thinks she sees might actually be in her head. Such as in the filmmaker’s earlier films Pi and Requiem for a Dream you get a sense of claustrophobia, and high anxiety levels rising throughout. Along with flashy watery colours we get much more graining and lo-fi visuals.
Portman deserves all the praise being heaped upon her, as she displays true discipline in creating Nina, giving a very lyrical, ripe and muscular performance which carefully builds over the story, and carries more and more dramatic weight as it moves along. While I would like to Michelle Williams get some overdue praise for Blue Valentine, nobody can have any complaints when Portman inevitably picks up the best actress Oscar on February 27th. Barbara Hershey has been sadly overlooked with her creepy and icy turn as the mother, at times she is so suppressed that like so much else in Black Swan her evil nature creeps up on, before stabbing you in the guts and lodging itself there for the remainder of the film. Vincent Cassel is at his slippery and sly best as the most unconventional of ballet teachers, and Mila Kunis gives what is surely her most convincing performance to date.
The piecing, spine chilling piano score, gothic sets and lavish special effects make up all add an extra layer of intrigue too. So what we have is a slippery supernatural psychochiller, which is stripped down and raw, and is a harsh account of the loneliness of the performing world, as well as one of the most extreme and uncompromising films of recent years which just happens to have gained main stream appeal. A bit like the Nina character with Swan Lake it feels like Black Swan is the masterpiece which Aronofsky has been building up to his whole career.
DIRECTOR: DARREN ARONOFSKY
CAST: NATALIE PORTMAN, MILA KUNIS, BARBARA HERSHEY, VINCENT CASSEL, WINONA RYDER
RUNTIME: 108 MINS APPROX