For his sixth feature film and following his success with “The Wrestler,” director Darren Aronofsky turns once again to his favourite theme of self-destruction as the basis for a psychological horror thriller in the world of ballet. And while comparisons with the Mickey Rourke picture and perhaps also with 1999’s “Requiem for a Dream” will abound, “Black Swan” has been received positively, by critics and audiences alike. Particular praise has been showered on the performance of Natalie Portman in the central role and on Aronofsky’s superb visual style in creating a fascinating if disturbing drama that never lets up until the very end. It’s a pretty damning look behind the scenes of an art that is as cruel and brutal as it is enthralling and exquisitely beautiful in its search for perfection. Professionals in the field might contest this but the portrayal of the extreme pressure these dancers are placed under, and place themselves under for that matter, isn’t always as graceful as it always looks on stage.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is a highly disciplined and dedicated dancer in a New York ballet troupe, preparing a superior performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Driven by her own ambitions and particularly those of her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina covets the part of the Swan Queen, a dual part of the white and black swans that define the ballet. After auditions, she is indeed given the part by director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who sees in her the perfect incarnation of the white but not necessarily that of the black swan. Nina is caught between his arrogant and manipulative nature as well as new arrival, understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) who seems to embody the black swan perfectly. Afraid she will loose the part, Nina drives herself ever further towards a precipice, her life clearly beginning to mirror that of the character turning into the black swan. Her self-destruction is imminent, both her body (a rash continually grows on her back) and mind being tortured by a sexual awakening and hallucinations. It comes to the point where the audience no longer know what is real and what is happening inside her head. As a piece of psychological horror and madness it functions extremely well as it leaves a (very much intended) disturbing aftertaste. Like most of Aronofsky’s works, this is not a film you will want to see multiple times for fear of your own sanity.
Actors can always earn themselves brownie points if their immersion in a role is complete – think of Robert DeNiro. Portman too is as dedicated as her character (hopefully without seeing things), spending several months in ballet training, the result being that her part is entirely believable – even for those who have no knowledge of ballet whatsoever will find an accessible way into her performance. Dancing aside, Portman captures the essence of the fragile yet determined Nina, it seems, effortlessly. Most importantly of all she can prevent the drug-induced hallucinations and scares from running away into the realm of more generic horror. Aronofsky deserves equal credit for drawing out the nuances of her performance with photography and style that is at once disconcerting as it is obsessively thrilling to watch. The camera sticks very close to the action, handheld camera adding both a unnerving “shake” without ever becoming cliched as well as capturing the fluid beauty of the ballet. The horror elements when they come rely on relatively classic scare techniques – “it’s behind you,” “creepy bath scene” et al – but Aronofsky makes them feel fresh, perhaps because of their incongruous placement in the midst of ballet. Many subtle visual effects are employed at intervals of increasing frequency, particularly to grant Nina’s rash lifelike qualities. One minor disappointment is the underwritten role of Winona Ryder as a prima-ballerina past her prime, but on the whole almost every aspect of “Black Swan” is worthy of high praise.
Composer Clint Mansell enjoys considerable popularity with a younger generation of fans that value his minimalistic synth tendencies. An Aronofsky regular, Mansell’s major task for “Black Swan” was to adapt and incorporate Tchaikovsky’s masterful music with his own work. The result of his efforts consists of adding groaning synthesisers and other horror-like sound effects over the top of rather than truly manipulating the ballet music. That music forms a central and very memorable element of the film is beyond doubt, however credit is due to Tchaikovsky and not Mansell. While a certain amount of “mangling” may be effective, the Russian composer’s music is itself filled with such terrible beauty that it would have been suitable on its own as in the film’s opening dream sequence. If you seek a souvenir from the film, buy one of the many recordings of “Swan Lake” for truly great music. Mansell’s contribution on the soundtrack is not recommendable.
Chilling and at the same time breathtaking to watch, Natalie Portman’s performance is what drives this great psychological thriller. To see her loose out on an Oscar for it would count as a major upset. As for Aronofsky, the director has found regular form again. Yet however masterful his films are, they certainly do not make for easy viewing.
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