(contains possible spoilers)
After watching this me and the wife had a little disagreement. I was planning to score this 9 out of 10 and she asked “why not 10 out of 10, what part of the film does not warrant full marks?” So, I had a little think, played bits of the film over in my head and thought to myself, actually I can’t find any reason not to award this masterpiece full marks, so 10 out of 10 it is! With a superb list of films behind him (Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler) was it possible for genius director Darren Aronofsky to continue to better himself? Your damn right! Black Swan is what Suspiria was to Argento, a cutting edge, inventive, shocking, disturbing, relentless tour de force which makes brilliant use of set designs, colours and skilful direction. The fact they are both based on ballet is also a bonus!
Black Swan see’s Natalie Portman playing a role she seemed born to play, and if ever you needed convincing, here is Portman really moving into the big leagues and maturing with fascinating and shocking results. Portman plays Nina Sayers, a skilled ballet dancer who does things by the book and plays by the rules. She is desperate to star in Thomas Leroy’s (a superb Vincent Cassel) new stage show of Swan Lake. Rumour has it that every ballet dancer in the world wants this part. Nina is picked for the last few, and is told by Leroy that she needs to explore her dark side and loose it before she can make that sudden turn of charming White Swan to vicious, desperate and seductive Black Swan. Nina gets the part, however her nightmare is about to begin as she delves deeper and deeper into dark territory.
Nina’s former ballet dancing Mother is over-protective and viciously pushy in getting her daughter to do the things she could not thanks to being pregnant. Its good old fashioned nasty Mum territory and some scenes will make you feel very uncomfortable indeed. Added to Nina’s problems is former ballet star Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) who Nina has replaced. Tensions run high between these two resulting in some truly disturbing scenes later on. Nina is also being pushed to her limits by Leroy, who tries to seduce her in order to bring out her darker self, and sets homework assignments like “Go home tonight and touch yourself”. One final problem is naturally talented Lily (Mila Kunis) a near perfect dancer who threatens to steal the part from Nina.
The pressure is on for Nina to get everything right and Aronofsky has created one of the most brutal and unsettling portrayals of the pressures of fame I have ever seen. Nina, quite literally, starts to grow black feathers, her feet appear webbed, her legs crack, it would seem the Black Swan is quite literally consuming her. Her usual nice, tender self starts to become angry, violent and immensely paranoid. The whole downward spiral is also sexually charged, incredibly sexually charged with Nina moving into uncomfortable situations as her sexual appetite starts to grow. We quite literally watch her become a monster. The sex pushes the story along nicely and there is plenty of nudity on offer here, including a highly erotic lesbian clinch between Nina and Lily after a night of partying. Yes, it’s fair to say Black Swan has something for everyone to enjoy.
Now, if the idea of ballet doesn’t quite float your boat, don’t worry. Aronofsky films his ballet like his life depended on it and makes it incredibly exciting and also quite disturbing. Wince as Nina breaks a toe nail, even the cutting of the bottom of ballet shoes to create more grip feels like something from a nightmare! The camera weaves in and out of dancers creating a chaotic atmosphere and unrelenting sense of urgency and, at times, panic. Not that it will spoil the plot in any way, but the final ten minute ballet scene will leave you breathless. Aronofsky shoots most of the film on handheld camera, but not in Cloverfield’s jittery style, here we are able to spy on our stars and sneak up on them as the camera moves around them. Just as a point of interest also, Nina never leaves the screen, we follow her every move, every emotion, every change. The camera work is sheer brilliance and really boosts the powerfully dark, almost romantic feel to the film. The camera work and also great use of classical and dark music have made this the ultimate noir and it feels so authentic and classic, like a fine expensive whisky. This is the sort of brilliance that only comes around every few years.
The tale itself is incredibly dark, with bizarre blink and you’ll miss it occurrences happening in the background. For example, a painting moves its eyes, demon like reflections appear in one of the hundreds of mirrors on show, a fantastic statue outside a party seems to follow Nina’s every move. This is horror, but its classical gothic horror for very grown up audiences. The story is deep and involving and at two hours long, i never for a second got bored or even realised two hours had even passed. Violence occurs often, but it’s mainly body horror violence, the kind early Cronenberg would be proud of. An almost unwatchable scene sees Nina rip the lose skin from her fingernail. What Aronofsky has done here is relied heavily on influences from early, moody horror like Suspiria and Possession and made it into his own. There’s no denying this is an Aronofsky film, the guy is a genius for Christ sake, and he has a serious talent for getting the very best out of his actors.
The film has twists and turns, and I truly believe there is far too much brilliance on offer here to take it all in in one sitting. This film cries out for a second viewing as i believe there are clues in many of the reflections, and I also believe there are points in the film where Nina actually looks like someone else (no names, don’t want to spoil things). The doppelganger idea is never far away either, and a second viewing would make it all clear. It could all have been in her head, you just don’t know. And as for actually turning into a swan, I’m sure this is Aronofsky’s way of showing just how pressure consumes, just like his film here. It will consume you, fascinate and bewilder you, take you to places in the mind you might not like to go, but ultimately this film rewards on every level, and i mean every level. It’s a joy to watch, but it’s also a disturbing, dark little nightmare that just might give you sleepless nights. Black Swan has started 2011 in mighty fine style and it will take something very very special indeed to top this masterpiece.