Black Swan

Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Mila Kunis.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Runtime: 108 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
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Rating notes: Strong sex scene, themes and violence

This dark film by Darren Aronofsky (who gave us “The Wrestler” in 2008) tells the story of a ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), wanting, and eventually being chosen for, the lead role in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake”. As the White Swan, she is elegant, poised and controlled, and perfect in technique. As the Black Swan, she cannot let go to become something she is not. The White Swan represents purity, trapped by romantic love. The Black Swan represents evil, looking for lustful revenge. Taunted by the lack of perfection, Nina slowly descends into madness so that she can dance the part of Odile, the Black Swan. Natalie Portman gives a brilliant performance as an insecure, talented dancer, searching for perfection, and Barbara Hershey is wonderfully controlling and domineering as her mother, who has been a failed dancer in the past and can’t let her daughter go.

The film keeps its tensions alive by first showing ordinary acts that take on sinister appearances. Then it progresses slowly into horror mode. A nail-cutting scene becomes one of self-mutilation, and the use of mirrors allows Aronofsky to show reflections that indicate the dark side of Nina, lurking inside her, wanting, but unable, to come out. As the film progresses, hallucinations take over, and for Nina the differences between reality and fantasy become almost indistinguishable. The hand-held camera work conveys a sense of unease that stamps the film somewhere between a horror film, a dark psychological thriller, and an intensive character study of a dancer losing control for art’s sake. As Nina becomes obsessed with self-doubt over whether she can dance the role of the Black Swan, the film becomes a portrayal of someone who descends into insanity in order to cope. The final scene is ambiguous. Is Nina’s dying on stage an act of self-mutilation on her part to gain artistic perfection, or is this another hallucination which shows that her madness has deepened? Whatever it is, it is a disappointingly melodramatic end to a taut, psychological thriller.

The heavy, frequent use of masturbation in the film, and an intense, aggressive, lesbian sex scene make the film strictly for adult viewing. The film as a whole, though, is highly creative in making Swan Lake something that is realistically horrifying. Portman is a trained ballet dancer and dances many of the scenes herself. Understudies do the more difficult movements. Throughout, the film captures vividly the pain, and ugliness of the competitive dance world, and Mila Kunis gives an excellent performance as the drug-taking, libertine, Lily, who taunts Nina to let go, but covets her role as the Black Swan.

Now a winner of the 2011 Golden Globe award for best actress, Portman’s performance as Nina has to be a contender for the 2011 Academy Awards. The tensions of the movie hardly ever flag, as scenes dip into other horror movies such as “Fatal Attraction,” “Mommie Dearest,” and “Psycho,” and there is a more than passing reference to the work and styles of well-known Directors of dark cinema, such as David Cronenberg, Alfred Hitchcock, and Roman Polanski. This is not a movie for the faint-hearted and it certainly will not appeal to committed ballet-lovers, who don’t like classical art forms being manipulated so much. However, the film dramatises Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet very imaginatively and inventively. This is “Swan Lake” in a way nobody has seen before.

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