When watching Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s new psychological thriller, there comes a point when you reach a cerebral fork in the road. One path stretching on ahead is labelled ‘Absolute bollocks’. The other is labelled ‘Absolute genius’. No, this isn’t an advert for a new variety of vodka – I’m trying to illustrate how, though the film is clearly very competently made, its emotive, passionate and often hysterical tone may lead to some hating it, while others fawn over its complexity and bravery. I am one of the fawners. Black Swan is a work of art; staggeringly beautiful, brutally powerful, and it contains the best performance leading actress Natalie Portman has ever given.
Though her awful turns in Star Wars and The Other Boleyn Girl have caused some Portman-bashing in the past, Black Swan makes up for her previous errors. The role of Nina Sayers, in the hands of a less talented actress, could have turned this intelligent film into a story of indulgent, boring narcissism. Instead, under Aronofsky’s masterful direction, she transforms into a character that is both unlikable and heartbreaking.
Nina is a ballerina for the New York City Ballet. She has a history of mental illness, and frequently appears to be on the verge of tears with the immense effort she is pouring into her art. A new production of Swan Lake for the upcoming Christmas season appears to be the main drive of her anxiety. The company’s prima ballerina, who would usually be handed the lead has been sidelined, and is now an aging, bitter and irrelevant has-been, startlingly (though perhaps aptly) played by Winona Ryder. With one unstable obsessive ballerina out of the way, Nina sees an opportunity to come centre stage, and desperately battles for the role of the dual lead: the White and the Black Swan. Her director (a satisfyingly sadistic Vincent Cassel), though admiring her beauty as the white swan, fears she may not have the dark, seductive power needed for her sinister alter-ego. There is also competition between her and new-girl Lily, a rival that has both talent and a husky, sexy nature that threatens to outshine Nina’s more collected performance techniques.
Nina’s dancing may be collected and spurred on by a wish for perfection, but her mental health is not so finely tuned. She starts to see bleeding crevices around her fingernails and scratches on her back. Are they real? Imagined? We’re not really sure, but her mother’s reaction to her behaviour leads her to fear that Nina may be regressing into old habits. The mother is an interesting staple too. Played with ferocious intensity by Barbara Hershey, she babies Nina as if she is still a prepubescent child, and keeps her bedroom filled with ghastly stuffed animals and pretty bed sheets.
Lily, Nina’s rival, also starts to become a problem. She appears to be playing mind-games with Nina, and on a night out at a club convinces her to take drugs and party the night away. This inevitably leads to further upset and paranoia, with Nina and Lily indulging in some rather explicit sexual acts. The heady, unsettling power Lily has over her troubled friend/enemy becomes frighteningly apparent as the film heads towards a brilliantly self-destructive conclusion.
Black Swan won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Some may object to having to watch Natalie Portman masturbating. Others may argue that a movie about a ballerina going through psychological hell isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun night out. But this is far more intelligent than any other adult thriller currently in cinemas, and although it can be visceral on the nerves and put knots in your stomach, it’s still immensely fun to watch. It’s a terrible truth, but as audiences we love watching people hurtle into inescapable madness, and here we get to experience in graphic detail every terrible trick Nina’s mind plays on her. Though not everything in this film is deception or illusion, as some wounds prove not to be figments of the imagination but very real indeed.
Many have noted similarities between this and Aronofsky’s last feature, The Wrestler. Both are films about performers who are prepared to suffer physical and emotional distress for the integrity of their art. However, though The Wrestler is perhaps the more mature piece of work, Black Swan is far more interesting. The former presents a washed-up star and how he comes to terms with the impending end of his career, whereas the latter looks at how destruction can occur just when an artist is starting to soar.
This may not have the same mainstream appeal as The King’s Speech, The Social Network or many others jostling for a place in the upcoming Oscar nominations, but it is the most uncompromising, unapologetic and arresting in its endeavour to show the traumas perfection can inflict. Blistering, potent and at times very upsetting, it’s likely we’ll be debating Black Swan’s dark depths for years to come.
Good: It’s complex, strange and will stay in your mind long after viewing.
Bad: Could be a little too mad for some.