Welcome to Aronofsky’s world of major league ballet – it’s bitchy, melodramatic, sexy and macabre.
Black Swan blends elements of his previous work – the underdog pushed to extremes in the pursuit of their passion as seen in The Wrestler, combined with the frenetic headfuckery of Requiem for a Dream.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, an ambitious twenty-something New York ballet dancer with an extremely pushy mother (Barbara Hershey).
When she unexpectedly lands the lead in Swan Lake, Nina must portray two characters – the delicate, innocent White Swan and sinister seductress, the Black Swan. As a prissy perfectionist she instantly nails the White Swan, but struggles to embrace the dark, animalistic side of her personality for the Black Swan.
Under pressure from the director (Vincent Cassel), Nina is haunted by the spectre of the Black Swan. Already fairly messed up with a history of self-harm, she becomes increasingly delusional, projecting versions of herself onto others, never knowing where reality stops and delusion starts.
Jealousy and paranoia set in when newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) effortlessly embodies the Black Swan with her instinctive, visceral approach to ballet. As opening night looms, Nina’s mind unravels and her mental torment is exhibited physically in a body she can no longer control.
It’s rare for such a huge movie to be led by a predominantly female cast, Cassel is the solitary significant male.
Portman leads the way with a truly mesmerising, gutsy performance – she’s so very good at being bad. The fact that she spent a year in intensive ballet training demonstrates her commitment to the role. Those in the know about ballet may quibble about her performance, but to a philistine like me, it’s pretty impressive.
Winona Ryder appears as a washed up former ballet star – a cruel case of life imitating art – 20 years ago she would have had Portman’s role.
Mila Kunis really shines, finally scoring a role worthy of her talent, while Hershey is horrifying as the nightmare mother and Cassel just about avoids being a cliché as the polonecked French ballet director.
The stark monochrome styling and the rush and swirl of the dancing give this film visual pizzazz from start to finish. Throw in a touch of camera trickery and the clever use of mirrors and the effect is dizzying.
Aronofsky is a magician who will have you questioning your own sanity by the end – was that Portman, Kunis or Ryder you glimpsed in the corner? Did you just hear the sound of birds’ wings?
Black Swan cries out to be seen more than once, but it is fuelled by ambiguity and will remain forever unknowable, mysterious and chilling.
Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey.