By Elena Cresci
In the months leading up to its release, the cinema world has been abuzz about Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature Black Swan. Set within the competitive world of a prestigious New York ballet company, this dark psychological thriller examines themes of mental illness, jealousy and duality. With 2008’s critically acclaimed The Wrestler under his belt, Aronofsky has yet again turned to a tale of physical dedication… but, does this film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis live up to all the hype or is it just another standard psychological horror flick?
The fact that Portman’s portrayal of Nina Sayers, an accomplished yet meek and painfully shy dancer, has been tipped for Oscar glory suggests otherwise. You wouldn’t expect a film about ballet dancers to be so surreal, and yet somehow it all fits. Nina is a fragile character, and her world is a strange one. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Nina is incredibly susceptible to psychological illness. Even before some truly mind-bending events take place, we can clearly see how damaged Nina is, from her history of self-harm to her eating disorders.
Her fragility puts her eligibility for the main role of the Swan Queen at risk. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the company, can only see the White Swan in her, while traditionally the dual role is danced by the same ballerina. A new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), is perfect for the role of the Black Swan, and Nina knows it. However, she manages to convince Thomas to give her the role, and what follows is a downward spiral as she strives for perfection in her art. All the while, something dark lurks beneath the surface as Nina struggles to portray both the innocent, naïve White Swan and the seductive Black Swan.
Perhaps with a different director, the plot may well have come across as utterly ridiculous, yet Aronofsky’s techniques paired with a stellar performance from Portman ensure that the viewer is well and truly sucked in from the start. There are some truly unsettling moments in this film, with Aronofsky making great use of an unsteady camera interspersed with point-of-view shots to put you well and truly in Nina’s silk ballet shoes. As expected, Tchaikovsky’s score plays a major part in the soundtrack of the film, appropriately reflecting Nina’s hunger and desperation to perfect the role. As Nina is immersed in the world of Swan Lake, so too is the viewer.
I’m really not one for horror, but somehow Aronofsky manages to toe the line between over-the-top terror and scenes that really get under the skin. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s in Nina’s mind and what actually occurs, as her hallucinations and reality begin to merge. There are certain scenes that have stuck with me even days after having seen the film. Clearly, Black Swan is a film which leaves its mark. As previously mentioned, much credit is due to Natalie Portman, but also to her main supporting actors; Cassel embodies masculine authority, as Thomas controls his dancers with undertones of aggressive sexuality, while Kunis’ performance steals more than a scene or two.
As brilliant as the film is, there is a difficulty in the way in which Aronofsky has paired the gruelling work of a ballerina with mental illness. There are many ways in which Aronofsky seems to criticise the ballet world, particularly with regards to ageism, but linking ballet with serious psychological illness is inherently problematic. However, Aronofsky does pose a question which has plagued the arts for centuries; when does artistic dedication begin to turn to madness? Portman shines as Nina, and gives what many have declared the performance of her career. Additionally, what I felt was done most exceptionally well was the merging of Portman’s dancing and the wider shots of her dancer double. The transitions are so seamless, that I never once felt as though it wasn’t Portman who was dancing, and in fact, much credit must go to her as Aronofsky has commented that the majority of the ballet scenes are in fact Portman herself.
In Black Swan, Aronofsky has added a new spin on Swan Lake, concentrating on the dichotomy between the White Swan and the Black Swan and showing how both sides can lurk underneath the surface of one person. This hotly anticipated film has delivered all that was expected of it and more; Aronofsky has successfully interwoven aspects of surrealism, psychological horror and even snippets of gore and created a feature that is well worth the hype. While it worries me somewhat how Aronofsky equates the obsessive athleticism of ballet to mental problems, the film is nonetheless excellent and a must-see of 2011.
9 OUT OF 10
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