If ‘Save the Last Dance’ was ballet meets hip-hop, ‘Black Swan’ is ballet meets body horror. Through director Darren Aronofsky, the ballet-thriller genre has finally had its shining moment. But then, he did bring us the exquisite head-fuck ‘Requiem for a Dream’, so ‘Black Swan’ was hardly going to be ‘Barbie and the Nutcracker’.
Through director Darren Aronofsky, the ballet-thriller genre has finally had its shining moment. But then, he did bring us the exquisite head-fuck ‘Requiem for a Dream’, so ‘Black Swan’ was hardly going to be ‘Barbie and the Nutcracker’.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is the mollycoddled ballerina who desperately wants the lead role in her New York ballet school’s production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’. When the current star, the ageing 39-year-old Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is forcefully ousted, Nina is delighted to be made Swan Queen in her place. In the ballet, the pure white swan and the seductive black swan are played by the same dancer. In ‘Black Swan’, that’s where things get a bit messy.
In the bitchy, competitive world of professional ballet, Nina’s struggle has only just begun. The sleazy director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), declares that while she is perfect for the part of the white swan, in order to gain true perfection she needs to lose herself to the sensual black swan. To help bring out her inner jezebel, Leroy sets Nina on the road to sexual liberation with her first task: ‘Go home and touch yourself.’
Still living with her overbearing mother and sleeping in her childhood room, Nina feels threatened when the tattooed, smoky-eyed new girl Lily (Mila Kunis, perfectly cast) enters the stage. The bad to her good, Lilly soon introduces her to sex, drugs and late night clubbing. An increasingly fraught Nina grapples with the concept of relinquishing her self-control so she doesn’t lose the coveted part, but risks losing her grip on reality instead.
Portman is incredible as the fractured Sayers, effortlessly teetering on the brink of birdlike-fragility and unhinged sensuality. Even as Nina struggles between holding on to her sanity and revelling in her new-found freedom, Portman’s impassioned performance ensures that the audience feels for her, and fears her, in equal measure.
Vincent Cassel is excellent as the emotionally manipulative Leroy. Echoing the malevolent magician in Swan Lake, his character is intent on fracturing his lead - pitting Nina against rival Lilly by teasing her, both mocking and liberating her, and, ultimately, breaking her into little pieces. However, Aronofsky’s expert direction ensures that Nina’s fissures are clear from the start, long before Leroy’s interventions.
Perhaps her overbearing mother is to blame (the fabulously unsettling Barbara Hershey), who watches Nina sleep and cuts her fingernails to stop her self-harming. Or maybe it’s Nina’s suppressed sexuality, which comes out in one particularly explicit scene with Lilly between her powder-pink bed sheets. As for whether any of this is even real, Aronofsky keeps his audience guessing.
As events escalate around Portman’s fractured lead – aided by a nerve-shredding musical score - the black swan begins to emerge bloodily out of the ruins of her psyche. Here Aronofsky excels, pushing his doppelganger theme to the max. Reflections misbehave, Nina’s mirror-imaged stalks her in the streets and her face appears where it shouldn’t mid-coitus.
Nina’s transformation is just as gut-wrenching outside as it as in. With its psychological scares and a good dose of body horror as nails splinter, skin peels and feathers sprout from bleeding wounds, ‘Black Swan’ is as much a horror as it is a thriller.
Visceral, exhilarating and fraught with tension, this is a film that perfectly captures a fractured state of mind, teasing its audience without being too promiscuous and leading them towards the breathless, stylised, nail-splitting finale.