There is absolutely nothing subtle about Black Swan. From the blending of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novella The Double and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, to the shamelessly archetypal characters and obvious visual allusions, this is a film that positively revels in the melodramatic. In other hands, such blatant ‘homage’ might seem ridiculous, but co-writer and director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) spins them into something more akin to magic. Heart-stoppingly stunning on both an aesthetic and emotional level, Aronofsky has created a mischievous, marvellous fairytale that seeps into your nightmares like the Grimms’ fables of old.
Setting the bar staggeringly high is Natalie Portman in her bravura performance as Nina Sayers. Prim, effacing, but veiled in a steely tenacity, Nina is the rising star of a New York City ballet company. Infantilised by her embittered mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina nevertheless manages to dethrone the company’s prima ballerina (Winona Ryder), before buckling under the pressure of playing the duel roles in company director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) revisionist Swan Lake. Threatened by the effortless talent of newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina is driven further to the edge by Thomas’ provocative efforts to push beyond the virginal grace required for the White Swan and draw out her latent, sensual, Black Swan.
In many ways Aronofsky has created a beautiful companion piece to his acclaimed tale The Wrestler. Visually, the two films share long sequences trailing the leads as they stalk around their domains, while both reverberate with thematic strains of physical discipline and psychological desperation. Yet as a thriller to The Wrestler’s elegy, Black Swan asserts its own distinct appeal, with Nina’s mind dissociating and disintegrating upon a separate, haunting plane of magical realism. Here Aronofsky and his makeup and effects team play their audience like marionettes, as we are drawn and then locked into Nina’s frayed psyche.
Balletomanes may be disappointed with the comparatively little screen time spent en pointe, however Portman’s transformative presence is nothing short of bewitching. Kunis and Cassel also shine, while Ryder and Hershey up the psychological ante in their scene-stealing appearances.
Beyond all of this film’s myriad references, Aronofsky is a cinematic disciple of The Red Shoes (1948). And much like Powell and Pressburger’s revered film, Black Swan achieves moments of glorious transcendence. Visually, sonically and through Portman’s awe-inspiring performance, Black Swan gets ever so close to achieving Nina’s devastating ambition: “I just want to be perfect.”
Published in The Big Issue #372
Australian release date: 20 January 2011