You may love Darren Aronofsky’s films, Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler and now Black Swan, or you may hate them, but you can’t ignore them. With 12 BAFTA nominations and a rather intense trailer, Black Swan will be one of the most talked about films of the year. But is it any good?
Natalie Portman gives a brave performance as Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer who strives for perfection in the role of the ‘Swan Queen’ from Swan Lake. She lives very much under the wing of her mother (an archetypal but fresh performance from Barbara Hershey) and her dance instructor, Thomas (Vincent Gallo). He sees her as perfect for the Swan Queen, but too regimented and restrained to play the dark alter ego ‘The Black Swan.’ Desperate to get the role, Nina must find her inner sensuality. Jealously and guilt play a part and it isn’t long before Nina’s fractured sense of self becomes manifest in several, increasingly sinister hallucinations.
Following on from a wrestling movie starring Mickey Rourke, Aronofsky makes another seemingly audacious film- an All About Eve with ballet or The Red Shoes meets the slasher movie. With its themes of the female doppelganger, the fractured personality and the preoccupation with a high art form it is surprising that Black Swan is so mainstream. Aronofsky’s skill is his ability to deal with rather outlandish subject matter (here the major themes of decades of European art films) in an accessible way. Black Swan looks and feels like an art film, but it is also a very audience-friendly movie, one complete with an unambiguous ending and an oddly predictable narrative flow.
However, that said, the film is an astounding work. As a visual experience, it is both beautifully lurid and hauntingly sinister. The ballet sequences are immensely involving and extremely well handled. Many of the grotesque hallucinations are almost on the same level of disgusting yet intriguing body horror as David Cronenberg. The film manages to maintain a mood of discomfort and eeriness throughout the majority of its running time (a nonetheless rather overlong 108 minutes). As a mood piece, with its often low-key lighting and sinister flights of fancy, it is undoubtedly effective.
One of the film’s most impressive features as the remarkable similarities in appearance between its female leads: Portman, Hershey, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. As part of her Nina’s fracturing, facets of her personality are projected onto the faces of those around her. These are the more successful of the film’s many visual experiments, making for many convincing hallucination sequences.A few years ago, David Lynch made a film called Inland Empire, in which an actress’ personality becomes distorted between that of her new role and those of the many actresses’ who had played the role before her. The film initially made sense before becoming entirely incomprehensible, something that, at three hours in length, was one tough watch. Aronofsky seems to have understood the initial premise of Lynch’s pretentious and egotistical work, and to have taken a lead from it, keeping things moving and avoiding anything too inaccessible. In a way, Black Swan works as both a summary and an introduction to much tougher art films. However, it is a remarkably upfront and vibrant film and a deeply impressive visceral experience. It doesn’t quite break new ground for the director, but it is a bold film nonetheless.