Film review: Black Swan

Duncan Wu enjoys the intensity and obsession in a portrayal of a ballerina losing touch with reality

January 6, 2011

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

UK release date 21 January

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel

"You fucking little whore! What did you do to get the part? Did you suck his cock?" A shocking speech, given that this is a ballet film - but then, Black Swan is excellent on the bitchiness, competitiveness and sheer jealousy of the dance world.

The object of this interrogation is Natalie Portman, who plays Nina, a young dancer cast as the lead in an innovative New York production of Swan Lake, in which she is required to play the virtuous white swan as well as the "lustful" black one. As the film begins, she is the virginal "good girl" of the overbearing mother with whom she lives, but as she explores the persona of the black swan under the questionable influence of her artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), and becomes embroiled in competition with another ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), she begins to discover a darker, more obsessive side to her character.

As this summary suggests, there is an underlying hysteria to the plot which identifies it as good old-fashioned melodrama, and the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, has found an intensity of manner to match its temper - an intensity conveyed partly by the use of a handheld camera held close to the action. Director Michael Powell didn't use handheld cameras in The Red Shoes (1948), but created intensity by a similar method in his ballet film, which remains the best of the genre.

Aronofsky probes as deeply as Powell into the psychological pains of being a performing artiste, and no less so into the physical challenges. There are recurring shots of Portman's toenails, increasingly damaged by dancing on pointe, and in one superbly mad scene, Nina's mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) accidentally draws blood when clipping them. Later, Nina painfully strips a huge piece of skin from her finger when attempting to remove a hangnail.

Such a micro-awareness of physical and (by implication) psychological derangement suggests a camp sensibility which, as the film proceeds, becomes increasingly flamboyant, as if challenging our credulity. I'm quite prepared to believe there are male choreographers who have designs on their female dancers, but would such a man really say, "I have a homework assignment for you. Go home and touch yourself"? At all events, Nina follows orders. She masturbates in bed, in the bath and, before you know it, she's taking drugs, snogging every boy she meets in the lavatories of the nearest club, and engaging in what The Sun describes as "lesbian sex-romps". Let's face it, that's the final straw!

One of the things I liked most about this film is that, because we see the world through Nina's eyes, we're never sure how barmy she really is. When she slices through her rival with a piece of glass, or slams the bedroom door repeatedly on the fingers of her nutty mother, it's unclear what has really happened - as if we've been sucked into the fantasy world that has gazumped her hold on reality. Speaking of which, Hershey deserves praise for an excellent performance as the mother - touchy when she should be compassionate, hysterical when she should exhibit calm. In an early scene, she presents Nina with a lavishly ornamented cake to celebrate her success. "No," says Nina, "my stomach's still in knots." "Fine," says her mother, "then it's garbage!" as she shovels it into the compactor.

Aronofsky's previous film The Wrestler (2008) was just as camp as this, despite its gritty setting and its lead, Mickey Rourke (as Randy the Ram, repeatedly attacked with a staple gun); but then, what could be camper than a wrestling match? It would be easy to regard that and Black Swan as remakes of A Star Is Born (starring Judy Garland in its 1954 remake), for all are preoccupied with the same theme: the cost of being a performer.

As with The Wrestler, your tolerance for Black Swan will partly be a matter of taste. Some may describe this as a woman's film; personally I loved it and would imagine that, regardless of your attitude to melodrama, you'll find it hard to resist the world so vividly portrayed by Aronofsky and his cast. It offers its audience sex, booze and people shouting at each other - not unlike the average English department.

Even those immune to the charms of ballet will be drawn into its set-pieces, so well are they filmed - and, if not, the acting throughout is a pleasure, from the seductive Kunis (who I haven't previously seen) to Cassel as Nina's egotistical choreographer. Portman, who does her own dancing, gives the performance of her career.

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