Black Swan (2010) – Aronofsky’s Creepy Lesbo Shriekfest…
I have some friends who would rate Black Swan five stars simply because it features a scene where Natalie Portman gets licked out by her evil twin. Perhaps if I was in Fox Searchlight’s marketing department and targeting a certain demographic, I might even get that in the tag line somehow.
Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s much-hyped companion piece to The Wrestler, was one of the most eagerly awaited, talked about and critically acclaimed films of 2010.
Despite all the award nominations, Black Swan rides on the back of The Wrestler‘s almost unanimous goodwill, and is an inferior film. Black Swan is an entertaining, atmospheric psychological thriller, but starts off in the realms of Polanski‘s Repulsion, and ends up more like Dario Argento’s Suspiria. In other words, it’s an intense, hysterical, bonkers piece of schlock dressed up as a serious Oscar-contending character study.
Natalie Portman’s award winning turn sees her as Nina Sayers, a brittle and beautiful young dancer for an illustrious New York ballet company. The company is gearing up for a modern take on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and the arrogant and charismatic Director, Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new Swan Queen.
Nina is devoted to her craft and practices incessantly at home in front of the mirror. She lives in an apartment with her mum, Erica (Barbara Hershey) who was a ballet dancer before she fell pregnant with Nina. The mother and daughter have a suffocating, touchy-feely relationship that feels a bit unhealthy, particularly with Erica’s extra edge, pushing Nina to succeed where she didn’t. She’s like an ultra competitive “Soccer Mom” crossed with Norman Bates’s Old Dear.
Nina is a contender for the Swan Queen role she craves, although has a problem – Thomas acknowledges she is perfect for the part of the pristine, virginal White Swan, but lacks the sensuality in her dancing to convince as the passionate Black Swan.
That side of the role seems more suited to a rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) – a carefree, promiscuous wildcat, who is not afraid to invest her innate eroticism into her dancing.
The ballet company is portrayed as a tense, bitchy, ambitious group of young women. As Nina is seduced by Thomas and works her way into the role, she also draws venom from the company’s previous principle dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), an over the hill ballerina forced into retirement by the enigmatic director.
As the pressure of attaining the prestigious role takes it’s toll on Nina’s already fragile state of mind, she begins to suffer hallucinations, as she starts to catch glimpses of a dark doppleganger dogging her footsteps.
Aronofksy uses the same technique here as in The Wrestler. He sticks a handheld camera behind the central character, and follows them around through their daily lives. This technique puts the viewer right in the character’s personal bubble – with Randy the Ram, we were so close to the aging wrestler we could hear his grunts and labored breathing, smell the peroxide in his hair and the jockstrap stench of the crowded locker rooms, and feel the creak of his protesting muscles.
Here, the technique is far more uncomfortable. It’s one thing following around a well-pumped man, not adverse to getting slammed through a table covered in drawing pins to entertain the crowd, but another breathing over the shoulder of a petite, frail young woman.
It’s voyeuristic, which means during the sex scenes, the viewer is also right in on the act. In the context of a psychological thriller, the technique is great for building a sense of dread – we’re so close to Nina that we can’t see anything that might jump out on her.
This quiet, insistent feeling of menace it beautifully sustained for the first two acts of the film, with a few jolts thrown in for good measure – Aronofsky embraces the use of mirrors for cheap scares, as well as hammering home the theme of evil double images.
Unlike The Wrestler, Black Swan betrays it’s super-confident, ice cool exterior and feels more like an amalgam of previous films. Aronofsky pays homage to Powell-Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes with a 360 POV whip-pan; there’s a shock cut to Nina’s mum at an unexpected moment that recalls Hitchcock’s reveal of Mrs Bates in Psycho; and a bathtub scene that simultaneously echoes A Nightmare on Elm Street and the under-rated What Lies Beneath.
The performances are mostly excellent. Natalie Portman brings her usual intelligence and frosty sexuality to the role of Nina. Portman is one of the most fearless contemporary actresses in Hollywood these days, unafraid to tackle adult roles, be it in the inconsequential sex comedy No Strings Attachedor as a stripper in Mike Nichols‘ Closer.
She’s thoroughly believable as the ambitious, feeble-minded Nina, although the role feels rather linear and two dimensional – Nina goes from focused, to frustrated, to turned on, to shrill, shrill, shriller.
Cassel is typically intense as the egotistic and charismatic LeRoy. It’s hard to believe is over fifteen years since he seared his image on the screen in 1995’s La Haine. LeRoy is a man of passionate perfection, big ideas and flashy concepts, and is an unapologetic predator of the beautiful young women in his control. Cassel believably makes LeRoy the type of arrogant, romantic rogue of an older man young girls fall for.
Kunis makes the most of a limited role as the fun-loving, uninhibited Lily, endowing the character with an undercurrent of vulnerability and hard knocks wisdom that naive Nina is drawn to and envies.
Hershey has the unforgiving nutty mum role, which means she acts like a woman dangerously in love with her child, cloying and controlling, and probably drinks too much when she’s by herself. I’ve already mentioned Mrs Bates – the other movie mum she resembles when she’s onscreen is Sissy Spacek’s mother in Carrie.
There’s very little room to breath in Black Swan, as it builds and builds towards it’s frantic, hysterical, schizophrenic final third. In the meantime, we can also draw further comparisons to the superior Wrestler, and ballet and wrestling generally. The punishment placed on the body to acquire the physical and aesthetic perfection each profession demands; the artifice and performance of both dramas; the desire to feel wanted and please the audience, the pathological yearning for the crowd’s approval.
Black Swan is not a perfect film, but has substance and confidence as well as visceral thrills, which makes it a must watch.