Review: Black Swan

***originally written 28 January 2011***

The Oscars don’t generally give out their major awards to horror films; the genre doesn’t have nearly enough respect in those terms. So it is entirely understandable why Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is not being marketed as a horror movie, but rather, as it’s trailer insinuates, more of a sexually heated ballet drama – with possibly a supernatural element thrown in. And this film clearly wants Oscars. Clearly deserves Oscars. But make no mistake, this is a horror film. It’s intense, at times genuinely scary, staggeringly beautiful and frequently ugly. For a mainstream movie – and by all accounts a very successful one so far – it is surprisingly dark. A lot of people are going to walk out of packed cinema screenings feeling very troubled and disturbed by what they have seen. A lot of people won’t like it.

Their loss. Because it’s brilliant. Just brilliant. Natalie Portman portrays Nina, a young ballet dancer who has the eye of her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Thomas is staging his interpretation of Swan Lake – a more visceral, emotionally raw version of the famed ballet. Nina is to play the Swan Queen who transforms from the White Swan (divine, elegant, precise) into the Black Swan (more fluid, less controlled, dangerous). However Thomas has concerns, apparently valid ones, that Nina is not up to the task, that her obsessive striving for perfection will never allow her to ‘break loose’ and inhabit the role of the Black Swan.

It’s a neat metaphor for what follows, as Nina, at first timidly, and sometimes against her will, faces the dark side of herself in order to give the role the emotional thrust it requires. This is in many ways a movie about sexual repression, and much of her transformation is marked by sexual encounters and activities, not all of them entirely of her own desire. This is not so much sexual liberation, more sexual cohersion.

It is also a movie about obsession. Nina is at one point asked who she is and she offers up “a dancer” instead of her name. Ballet is her life, and the movie seals us in it’s world. When we’re not backstage at rehersals we’re trapped in the small apartment Nina shares with her mother, a former ballet dancer and an overpowering figure in her life. Ballet is the family line and is all she has ever known. Add to that her mother’s controlling, overpowering nature and it’s little wonder that her devotion to ballet is as consuming as her terror of cutting loose. Nina is bound inside herself as tightly as her feet are bound inside her shoes. But in portraying the Black Swan, that tightly controlled darker side will out…

Further pressure comes in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis), a fellow dancer who is Nina’s toughest competition. Lily already has the Black Swan in her. The two are physically similar, and as the film begins to peel away the layers of identity, this works entirely in it’s favour as the two roles even begin to merge, Portman and Kunis dizzying the audience by switching places. Is Lily merely a manifestation of Nina’s Black Swan waiting to emerge….? What follows is a raw descent into identity crisis and transformation that reminded me of nothing so much as David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, in terms of both the fearsome lead performance and the darkness of the portrayal of a personality coming apart at the seams. Like INLAND EMPIRE, Black Swan presents dark, often horrific surrealism with grim murkiness. The camera work is beautiful, but what is happening is frequently deeply unsettling. Backing all of this up is Clint Mansell’s astonishing music, as masterful when underscoring unease as Swan Lake is rousing in the film’s sweeping, dizzying final stretch. Fans of David Cronenberg will also notice how much Black Swan owes the Canadian master of body-horror, as Nina’s transformation takes on unpleasant physical manifestations. Prepare to wince.

Beyond that, plotwise, little can be said. But the final act ups the ante exactly when it’s required, and suddenly the film twists and turns down hideous, nightmarish blind alleys, recalling the masterpieces of horror, from Don’t Look Now to The Shining. Aronofsky pulls off excellent jumpy moments, but they never feel cheap, and never derivative. It’s an exhausting, cathartic experience, and Portman is a revelation.

I doubt she’ll get the Oscar. She deserves it. But I doubt she’ll get it. Oscar doesn’t do well with movies as dark as this. And, personally, I’m filled with a devilish glee at the thought of casual Orange Wednesday movie-goers walking out of Black Swan in mute contemplation. I wish more films like this managed to sneak into the mainstream. It feels like Aronofsky has achieved some kind of perverse victory. Needless to say, I loved it. It’s a gripping piece of work. I have niggles with it (the overuse of mirrors as symbolism gets a little hokey, the dangling story thread regarding a former ballet dancer played by a little-used Winona Ryder is like an itch I can’t scratch) but these are minor points. Black Swan took me on a ride so that, when Nina’s performance finally came around, it felt like the weight of the world was riding on the outcome. And what a standing ovation it deserves.

Score:  5

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