‘I had a crazy dream last night,’ broods Natalie Portman in the opening moments of the Oscar-nominated Black Swan and in doing so sets the tone for Darren Aronofsky’s ballet drama. But, of course, with Aronofsky at its helm this is not your average delicate representation of the dance form. Gritty and powerful, Black Swan distorts reality and portrays the warping of a once-innocent mind of a young ballerina, Nina (Portman), after she is given the prestigious role of the white swan in a production of Swan Lake.
When speaking about the infamous ballet during the pivotal casting process, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) describes how he intends to ‘strip it down’ and this is mirrored neatly throughout the film. Far from merely embracing the beauty of the performance of ballet, Black Swan delves beneath its delicate exterior and uncovers an ugliness that adds a fascinating edge to the film. Mixing the rather harrowing realities ballet dancers face (with Nina sporting bloody feet and an injured diaphram), backstage bitchiness and rather disturbing images (we point here to one particular scene with a nail file as well as the film’s absorbing finale), Black Swan manages to blend the grotesque with the sublime captivatingly.
Allowing for some interesting camera shots, reflections, and their relationship with identity, are pivotal to the film’s theme. Not only do they allow the dancers to hone their skills, reflections also aid Nina’s mental breakdown when she sees herself in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis). The jealousy that consumes her slowly bleeds into the film and consumes it too. As the film gathers pace it begins to faintly mimic the famous ballet production that it is based upon. This is only heightened by the film’s soaring soundtrack. Journeying from a fragile virginal figure, Nina slowly loses herself to the passion of the black swan (Portman and co. dressing accordingly throughout) with inevitably destructive consequences.
As well as the stress of having to embody both the white and the black swan in her performance, Nina is put under further strain by the characters that populate her life. There’s the predictably fiery producer (Cassel) who demands she explore her passionate side (leading to some troubling masturbation scenes… troubling due to the fact her mother happens to be watching), a worryingly controlling and excessively needy mother who dotes on (and demands to live vicariously through) her, there’s the scorned predecessor who doesn’t take being forced to bow out of her position lightly (the role of Beth perhaps playing a little close to home for Winona Ryder) and then there’s the free-spirit Lily (Kunis). An enigma from the off, Lily presents an unfathomable rival to Nina who begins to lose her sense of self after being consumed by paranoia. Igniting the passion in Nina that Thomas so desperately seeks, Lily’s presence leads to the much rumoured sex scene between off-screen pals Portman and Kunis. Throughout the film Black Swan titters between smutty and sassy but it is from this point on that things start to get interesting – whilst letting go of her inhibitions, Nina struggles to find a foothold on reality and Lily may not be all that she seems.
Offering a majestic finale well worthy of the ticket price alone, Black Swan is elegant and horrific in equal measure. Aronofsky’s directorial prowess defines the film and gives it a sharp and focused constant that juxtaposes Nina’s fracturing reality. Prepare for an emotional and visual thrill-ride as Aronofsky takes you on a enchanting journey to the ballet.
Best line: ‘That fucking hurt!’
Best performance: Natalie Portman as Nina.
Best question posed by the film: What exactly is that rash… ?