Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan sees the writer and director turn his yellow eye to the fiercely competitive world of classical ballet. Natalie Portman plays a high-stepping ingénue whose body and mind collapse under the strain of taking on a dual role in a modern retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Following the enforced retirement of his prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), domineering choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is looking to re-launch his company with a bold production of Swan Lake, which will have one dancer play both the virginal White Swan and the sensual Black, Odette and Odile.
Graceful, ambitious Nina Sayers (Portman) is the obvious choice for the White Swan, but Leroy believes she is too sweet and wholesome to play the dual role. Nina lives with her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer turned amateur artist who maintains a tight hold on much of her daughter’s life. When lithe and sultry newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the production, Nina faces competition for the lead role for the first time in her career. Lily lacks Nina’s precision and determination but has charisma and sexual energy to burn.
The pressure is too much. When the charismatic Leroy tries to kiss her, something in Nina cracks and she starts to see visions of herself as a dark-eyed doppelganger, hears whispered ghostly voices and feels strange new sexual impulses. Half starved, in constant pain and hopelessly isolated, Nina’s dark feelings fester into something more malignant; crippling paranoia, breathless panic and a desire to hurt those around her.
In its best moments, Black Swan combines the Technicolor melodrama of Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes with the lip-smacking camp of Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the backstage hysterics of A Chorus Line, a newly-fused hybrid of opera and horror, archly theatrical and claustrophobically intense. Framed initially as an oestrogen-soaked drama, then as a psychological thriller, Black Swan eventually reverts to Grand Guignol, devoted to splashing blood and crunching bones, broken hearts and fractured minds and all within a diamond-forming atmosphere of pressure and strain.
As in The Red Shoes, the simple pleasure Nina finds in dancing slowly contorts into a nightmarish compulsion to put her new feelings into physical gestures, however dangerous and devastating they prove to be. Portman is captivating as Nina; her ecstatically wounded expression capturing the confusion of a repressed young woman adrift in a world of danger and carnality with frightening veracity. The rest of the cast are extraordinary, the standout being Kunis’ manipulative minx, every word and gesture open to interpretation as a compliment or a threat.
It seems absurd to describe a film about ballet as jumpy but Black Swan is an intensely disturbing experience, dazzling and disorienting in equal measure. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera never settles, winding around the characters like an unseen ghost. Aronofsky’s characters are monstrously hateful and mean, without a single redeeming presence. Nina is in almost constant physical pain, rarely at rest and suffering cramps and strains that match her ever-deteriorating psyche. Her visions are haunted with ghosts, demons and doubles. Aronofsy's film is pitch dark, perhaps so dark that the formal beauty in the film is overwhelmed by shadow. Regardless, this is must-see cinema, an overpowering sensory experience pushed to the ragged edge by Portman’s extraordinary performance.