Review: Black Swan

Thin pickings for superb Portman

By Jonathan Foreman, January 21, 2011
Natalie Portman: Her ability conveys the vulnerability of her character and makes for a fine performance

Natalie Portman: Her ability conveys the vulnerability of her character and makes for a fine performance

The brilliant director Darren Aranofsky first came to notice with a low-budget independent film called Pi about a paranoid mathematical genius pursued by Chasidic numerologists. But it was with the terrific, eye-poppingly inventive but harrowing drugs film Requiem for a Dream that he made his reputation.

Since then, Aranofsky's work has ranged from the slated science fiction effort The Fountain to The Wrestler which won a Best Actor Oscar for Mickey Rourke.

Aranofsky's Black Swan is a typically unpredictable foray into the world of ballet. Like its predecessors, it is largely about the mental and physical price of obsession. Unfortunately, though it shares some of Requiem's visual virtuosity it also exaggerates its faults including a grim relentlessness. The result, though visually stunning and brilliantly cast, is an initially disturbing psychological thriller that turns into a lurid, increasingly absurd melodrama. At times it is so overwrought it verges on camp.

It is a shame because Black Swan features a superb performance by Natalie Portman whose ability to convey vulnerability suits this role much better than many of her recent efforts. She also looks every bit the ballerina. In a physical transformation akin to De Niro's for Raging Bull and Tom Hanks's in Castaway, she has thinned herself to the point of bony emaciation.

The film's almost unvaryingly doomy mood is set in a beautifully shot first scene. The camera moves in close behind a ballerina's head as she twirls in and out of the arms of a dark, sinister figure, her face stretched in fear, her eyes near tears.

Portman with her screen mother, Barbara Hershey

Portman with her screen mother, Barbara Hershey

The camera then whirls around and between the dancers until you almost feel you are dancing yourself. Then the dancer awakes in what looks like a little girl's bedroom. She is smiling; her dream may have been sinister but in it she was dancing the lead role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

Nina (Portman) is an emotionally immature dancer in her late 20s who lives with her creepy, controlling ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey, her face wrecked by plastic surgery) in a cramped New York apartment. From the beginning of the film, Nina seems to be in the grip of delusions, if not a full-on schizophrenic breakdown, seeing doubles of herself on the subway and in the street.

Though a mere member of the Corps de Ballet, Nina finds that she is indeed up for the role of Swan Queen after her tyrannical and manipulative boss Thomas (the marvellous French actor/director Vincent Cassell) fires the principal dancer (Winona Ryder) - also Nina's crush object - for being too old.

However, Thomas is not sure that Nina's dedication and technical perfection are sufficient to pull off the role. The lead dancer has to play not just the virginal white swan but also her evil and sensual twin, the black swan. And as Thomas points out with typical brutality, Nina is either a virgin or close to it.

Unfortunately for Nina, a younger dancer named Lily (the gorgeous Russian-Jewish starlet named Mila Kunis), who has just joined the company from California, has the spontaneous sensuality that she lacks. Nina becomes convinced that Lily is following her and trying to destroy her. She is also drawn to Lily's witchy, earthy sexuality, though whether that desire is mutual is left ambiguous and dependent on a Fight Club-type seduction sequence that may or may not be a dream.

As the premiere draws nearer and Nina reaches for her own dark side, she starts to manifest strange physical maladies, including a rash on her shoulder blade that uncannily suggests a bird's wing, and also to mutilate herself in ways even nastier than the painful physical rigours required of all ballet dancers.

There is nothing subtle about Black Swan. Nina wears white; her rivals and Thomas, are always in black. Again and again you see Portman's face reflected in mirrors or windows; increasingly the reflections are fractured. As if the doppelgangers Nina sees on the subway are not enough, there are times when her sensual rival Lily suddenly seems to have her face.

These may be the delusions of a mind that has become unhinged. But even the twisting and tearing of new point shoes is amplified to sound sinister and it becomes clear that Aranovsky has deliberately moved into horror film territory. And that it is only a matter of time before blood will be spilled. As well as echoes of Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, there are flashes of Don't Look Now, various Hitchcock thrillers, and all the horror films that have made the most of dark corridors. Indeed Portman's character seems to spend most of her of time in underlit, empty hallways, as if New York's Lincoln Centre had unaccountably been depopulated while suffering an electricity brownout.

However, the biggest problem with Black Swan is an awkward script (credited to three writers) that is riddled with stereotypes and laden with crude sub-Freudian Hollywood clichés about artists needing to "let go", and discipline and hard work not being as important as tapping into the animal within.

Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011