Black Swan has perpetuated more buzz than most films this season, and the reason may be esthetics. It is an eyeful, a decadent and baroque feast of gorgeousness that suggests an ugly heart. This thriller delivers on both counts with a kick to the stomach from a satin ballet shoe.
Natalie Portman plays a delusional ballerina who must tackle her demons just as she experiences the crowning moment of her career. We witness a brief period of time as a professional company launches its new version of Swan Lake and she is its star. The film unfolds from her point of view, but information becomes less reliable as her career takes flight and anxieties mount.
Winning the role of the Swan Queen is a gift – it could net her approval, fame and a place in dance history, but psychology sabotages her best intentions. Something’s eating at her core, a deep and destructive need to be ‘perfect’.
Nina has it bad on all fronts, a mother who may be deranged, no friends, self doubts and what her artistic director calls ‘frigidity’. As a new star, she becomes the focus of jealousy and gossip. Backstage seductions, betrayals, and improprieties create in her a perfect storm nihilism, obsession, fear, and danger.
Suspense attaches itself to every action, and doomed seems too weak a word to describe Nina’s malevolent world.
Aronofsky provides a creepy score which adds to the stench of toxicity, but the package is seductively served in that most beautiful world of ballet. Nina’s particular corner is a dark place indeed, its glossy black walls simultaneously hiding and highlighting the things that go on inside her head.
At first, Nina appears to be an innocent waif, like the White Swan. She uses her femininity for professional considerations but can’t admit it to because that would make her less than perfect. So the veneer starts to crack.
There are indications that certain things take place – a casual instruction by the artistic director (Vincent Cassel) becomes a physical relationship, a friendship with a fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) becomes sexual but we realise that Nina’s not a reliable witness. But one thing is sure; the White Swan is losing her innocence.
The Black Swan begins to emerge and with her, violent dreams, visions of hurting and murdering enemies, and bloody red marks on her body. She sees herself as perpetually under attack and attacking.
The Black Swan is a tough emotional journey with that chilling score, but it is exquisite to look at. Chock full of nubile, perfectly fit young dancers straining and stretching, the artistry of the ballet, costumes, sets, the soft and hard textures of the floor and the dancers’ bodies, nothing is spared from beauty. Beauty is not our friend here. It certainly has a mad, black heart.
The film’s following may prove to be more teen, Twi-hard types, born and raised on the cinematic pop culture connection between blood, lust, love, madness and death. It’s a romantic literary construct that has enjoyed a lasting place in our culture.
The marketing plan is genius – posters of Natalie Portman in full, bleak Swan Queen drag, and the other one, the stylised graphic of, ahem … you know, sheer visual, seductive impact.
Facebook campaigns, young ballerinas in black face strolling through city centres – and those posters – will rocket Black Swan to troubled teen dream status and a new crush will have emerged.
Black Swan may be the creepiest film of the year but it is also one of the most anticipated. It demands commitment, a strong stomach, and an ability to sustain sudden dramatic switches and retain focus.
Oscar buzz is strong, but Black Swan may be a trifle outside for traditionally fusty academy voters.
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Written by Marc Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Opens: Dec 3
MPAA: Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use
Runtime: 107 minutes