Reasons to watch Black Swan: 1) You really hate Natalie Portman and wish harm on her, 2) You really like Natalie Portman, 3) You really hate yourself and wish harm on yourself, 4) Over-the-top dark melodramas are your thing.
Note that none of these reasons involve enjoying ballet dancing. Ballet comes off both well and badly from Black Swan – it directs the actual dancing in an just as exciting and dynamic a way as the rest of the film, but it implies horrific pressure piled on the dancers. Those actually involved in ballet who get interviewed about Black Swan seem to mostly just be focused on defending it from the criticisms the film seems to level at it. But really Black Swan could have been about anything, because it’s more about the character’s breakdown than the specific reasons for it. The use of Swan Lake is the source of the duality at the core of the movie, but a similar theme in any artwork would have done just as well. At its core the film seems to be about the artist and performer striving for perfection. You can read it as a critique on itself, if you’re in the mood to.
The plot at its simplest is about Natalie Portman’s ballerina Nina (yeah I know…), who is attempting to be the lead in her New York troupe’s Swan Lake show. The role requires her to play the elegant, waif-like White Swan – which she is perfect for – and the sultry, out-of-control seductress Black Swan – which she isn’t. Her attempts to learn to be more impulsive and, um, bithcy, as well as the pressure put on her by her ridiculously creepy and predatory director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) result in a spiral downwards into depravity (as indicated by one of those Magic Film Drugs That Just Send You Mental and a bit of lesbianism) and insanity (as indicated by ABJECT HORROR).
Once the slide begins, with a few unsettling jumpy moments where it’s hard to tell what just happened, it persists for the whole film. There is no escape from the foreboding tone and the scares, which at one point later in the film take over completely and for ten minutes it becomes an unadulterated B-movie horror. There’s the feeling of being stuck inside Nina’s head, with the camera spending just about the whole movie not only from her viewpoint, but basically stuck to her shoulder. Even the outdoor scenes – and at night especially the outdoor scenes – feel enclosed and claustrophobic. Combined with the suggestive but unclear shots, which always cause a double-take from the audience and from Nina, I have never felt so much like I’m inside a character’s skull.
The inescapably oppressive atmosphere mirrors Nina’s life, particularly when her home becomes as much a place of fear as anywhere else due to her increasingly strange mother (Barbara Hershey). What are first very subtle incestuous undertones become, well, less subtle incestuous undertones as the film progresses – one sudden cut to reveal the mother caused a few laughs in the cinema it was so jarring, but on afterwards comes off as more disturbing than funny. You’ll know it when you see it.
So on and on the macabre circus goes, leading to its melodramatic and in hindsight inevitable – but still powerful – conclusion. Darren Aronofsky has gone way, way over the top in his style and themes, and that’s what makes the film so uniquely great. It seems to blend high culture and pop culture, just as the perfect B-movie about ballet should. Aronofsky ought to win best director for it, because the directing is what elevates the film from just melodrama, and it’s omnipresent and draws attention to itself like no other.
Oh and Natalie Portman’s a dead cert for best actress. It’s impressive enough that she basically actually became a ballerina for the part, but her acting would win out anyway. Nina struggles to play two conflicting characters, Portman succeeds in bringing them together into one person. She plays sweet, out-of-control, and even spiteful (note the look on her face in the mirror when she cuts her finger). And as I said before, the movie is focused directly on her throughout, so it is true to say she has to carry the film more than most leads do.
The directing won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and if you have a lot of mirrors in your home then maybe you should avoid Black Swan (seriously, I never want to look in a mirror again). But it is a supremely well made film which borrows from a lot of sources to make itself unique, and as an experience it is hugely affecting. To paraphrase Quentin Tartantino on Inglourious Basterds, once you’ve seen this film, you know you’ve seen a film.
You can follow Michael Fern on Twitter @popmikey