Black Swan (2010)

25 January 2011

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Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is good, but it is rarely great. After 2008's The Wrestler, it is the second feature that the film-maker hasn't scripted, and continues to show his strength as a director of more straightforward narrative films. Here, ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) scores the lead role in a new performance of 'Swan Lake', but though she has the discipline and technique to make a great White Swan, she lacks the natural sensuality of the Black Swan. Instructed by impresario Thomas (Vincent Cassell) to get in touch with her "dark side", Nina, by way of befriending her more outgoing colleague Lily (Mila Kunis), begins to imagine she is taking on the traits of the Black Swan.

The film unfolds much like The Wrestler, utilising the same over-the-shoulder tracking shots that proved a stylistic departure from Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Fountain (2006). The camera never leaves Nina's point-of-view; her hallucinations are never given any distance. If it begins as a claustrophobic melodrama, Black Swan develops increasingly as a liberated horror.

Matthew Libatique's muted, almost monochrome cinematography seems to match Nina's repression; a nightclub scene containing red and green strobes midway through the film comes as a visual relief just as it represents to Nina a physical one. Dramatically, though, the film's strength is undermined by a lingering feeling of flatness. It's an engaging film, mostly because of its absorbing, unsettling imagery and some brilliant technical achievements involving mirrors and blink-and-miss moments in which actors turn out to be other actors. Beyond this though, beside a similarly themed film such as Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001), the film isn't as suggestive or rich as it seems to think; in fact, it is at points quite obvious and mechanical.

For all the psychological horror involved here - and the film certainly has its moments - the most frightening presence is Nina's overbearing mother, played with fragile menace by Barbara Hershey; as he did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Aronofsky embraces the physicality and perhaps mortality of the body, especially with Hershey and her onscreen daughter Portman. If the former's central neurosis seems as much to do with the horror of ageing as it is with artistic compromise, then the latter looks emaciated and embodies her character's commitment to ballet (she performed much of the dancing herself); beyond physical acting, though - impressive enough - Portman is convincingly pathetic as the frigid, sexually inhibited girl who in projecting her own fears onto fellow dancer Lily, ends up imagining having sex with her.

Amidst all of the female concerns of ageing and being passed over (Winona Ryder makes the most of her role as Nina's predecessor Beth) is the suggestion that in order for Art (the capital is worn proudly here) to be truly great, one must put one's whole being into it, risking along the way sanity and self. In the final moments, there seems to be a suggestion, finally, of Aronofsky distancing himself - and allowing us to with him - from Nina's distorted point-of-view. It's just as well, too, because the final line of the film might have otherwise been as eye-rollingly pompous as that which concludes Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009).