Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is already hitting the headlines in the UK as a certainty for Oscar recognition in the US and from watching it I can see why.
Natalie Portman is Nina, a ballerina who wins the lead in Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) illustrious production of Swan Lake. Although technically perfect, Nina struggles to display the emotion of the piece and her struggle soon becomes obsession to feel the emotive part of the Black Swan.
Nina is a tightly wound ball of repressed emotion. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) was a ballerina before her, a career curtailed by her falling pregnant, and she is clearly living vicariously through her daughter and that brings its own pressure. Nina is also sexually repressed and struggles to cope with the attentions and advances of Thomas Leroy. Her life revolves around attaining technical perfection, but her emotional connection to the role in which she dances is vapid. In winning the lead role in Swan Lake Nina must engage her emotions to not only play the White Swan, a symbol of innocence and purity, but also the Black Swan; a seductive temptress full of desire. Leroy astutely points out to Nina that the White Swan is not the problem, but the Black Swan may be beyond her. Nina’s own self discovery leads to a twisted friendship and rivalry with another ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), who lives her life very much in the now; the antithesis of Nina.
From the outset the dedicated and physically demanding lifestyle of ballerinas is depicted as restrictive and obsessive which adds to the themes of repression and self-denial that permeates throughout the movie. Nina’s obsession with the perfection that she seeks consumes her and begins to manifest itself in a nightmarish, distorted and grotesque reality that blurs the lines between the performance and real life.
The film carries much of the same sensibilities of The Wrestler and Aronofsky orchestrates the camera work brilliantly; from following close behind Nina to provide a voyeuristic insight into her life to the tight manoeuvres of the dance and the subtleties of the descent into madness. The film creeps up on you from a gentle start to a building crescendo so that it becomes quite breathtaking.
I was also impressed with the use of sound; Nina’s breathing during dance sequences provides a human connection to her, rather than simply watching a performance, as does the tapping of her ballet pointe shoes across the floor.
Natalie Portman as Nina is possibly in the role of a lifetime and she excels. Not only do you believe she is Nina, you also find yourself sucked into her obsession and her nightmarish life becomes real. She is clearly giving her all and would be deserving of some industry recognition for her performance.
She also has fantastic support; Barbara Hershey brilliantly underplays her part as an equally ballet obsessive and Cassel chips in with his usual high standard. But Mila Kunis was the biggest surprise (outside of Portman) to me. Generally known for light comedy turns in That 70s Show and Date Night, she shows previously well hidden depths as the hedonistic Lily.
The film plays out like a cross between Fight Club and John Cassevette’s Opening Night with hints of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. It is rightly winning plaudits and it is rightly becoming one of the most talked about films of 2011.
My Rating: 4/5