Beautiful dark twisted fantasy – Black Swan review

Black Swan – Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassell. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated MA. Originally published January 4, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

Things are about to get … intense. Perhaps Darren Aronofsky should have considered attaching a title card with that brief caveat to the reels of his latest film Black Swan. He didn’t. Instead, I offer that warning to any readers who immediately balk at vociferous hyperbole, effusive zeal, or full-throated defences of melodramas with a healthy-heaping of body-horror. Black Swan is a film that feels tailor-made for me, and by me, I mean anyone who enjoys devouring cinema as if it were chocolate-flavoured oxygen. It’s for anyone who is truly excited by a movie that can be accurately described as a fusion of Black Narcissus, Suspiria and Videodrome. It’s for anyone tired of naturally-perverted tales being watered-down for tweenagers, like the story of the girl caught in a love triangle with a wolf and a vampire, frustratingly told as a metaphor for abstinence. (Thankfully, not all mainstream films are as prudish as The Twilight Saga; Avatar had a paraplegic soldier taking over the body of a giant blue alien and having interspecies sex with a slamming Na’vi hottie via the USB ports in the back of their heads. Sure, it’s not Crash, but it’s a start.) In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Black Swan could have ended up like an all-singing all-dancing reimagining of Single White Female. Instead, Darren Aronofsky delivers a tightly-wound, deeply-disturbed, psycho-sexual oddity – not unlike his film’s lead character.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a precious, twenty-something ballerina still living at home with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina’s bedroom is adorned with pink frills and teddy bears; it’s as if the softly-spoken young lady is waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her from her lonely existence (a terrifying glimpse at a woman who has bought in to the myth propagated by Twilight? OK, OK, I’ll stop). Well, if Nina was looking for a fairy tale, she should have gotten into pantomimes, and not the tragedy-loving, irony-drenched world of the ballet. After slaving away under the cruel tutelage of Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), she is selected as the Prima Ballerina of his New York ballet company, ousting the over-the-hill Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder). Her debut performance will be in Swan Lake, where she will play both the delicate White Swan and her twin, the conniving Black Swan. It will also feature a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis), a fluid performer that Nina becomes obsessed with – both as a professional threat and sexual conquest. As the pressure of the impending performance mounts – it has to be “perfect” – Nina’s already sensitive psyche starts to fracture, and she is confronted with a number of frightening, potentially imagined developments she is unable to separate from reality (including, but not limited to, the idea that she may be literally mutating into a swan).

Nina’s evolution into the Black Swan – regardless of whether it’s real or if she’s imagining it – is perhaps the most unsettling visual transmutation of the human body since Seth Brundle morphed into the Brundlefly. The supreme visual and makeup effects play second fiddle to Natalie Portman’s transformative performance; she’s an actress I never used to give much credit to – a charming ingénue with a big smile, but not enough chops to carry a drama. With last year’s Brothers, and now Black Swan, I’m happy to admit I was wrong. She captures the requisite fragility of her character without it seeming like a quirky tic; later, she unveils a violent, unhinged dark-side that similarly feels borne from a truly disturbed individual, and not as if she has evolved into Freddy Krueger. She brings a physicality to her performance(s), particularly in the dancing scenes. Although I am not schooled in the technique of ballet to fully discern whether or not she is practicing it correctly, the audience understands when she is dancing well, when she is dancing badly, when she is dancing like the White Swan, and when she is dancing like the Black Swan. I cannot emphasise enough how important that is, and how difficult it is to achieve. Hers is not the only great performance; the supporting cast should be comprised of expected archetypes – the smarmy teacher, the intense stage-mother, the oversexed rival – but Cassel, Hershey and Kunis all offer enough shades to their characters to keep you guessing their true motivations.

I suppose Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is the obvious comparison, what with it also being the tale of a devoted ballerina who goes off the deep end. But a better companion piece is Powell/Pressburger’s earlier film Black Narcissus, which featured a couple of sexually-repressed nuns going round-the-bend in an isolated Himalayan convent. Similarly, Black Swan evokes Dario Argento’s Suspiria – a supernatural thriller that takes place within a German ballet company – and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – a nightmarish horror film in which James Woods becomes detached from reality and starts to imagine his body as a vessel for violence (no, seriously – his arm morphs into a gun). They say there is nothing new under the sun, but it still takes a fine filmmaker to combine their inspirations into a brand-new cohesive beast. Tarantino does it all the time, and here, Aronofsky does it too. But he also wisely infuses Black Swan with his own recurring themes (What are Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler if not tales of obsession that ultimately end with the deterioration of the human body?). Screenwriters Mark Haymen, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin have written a fine psychological thriller (a damn fine psychological thriller), but Aronofsky, with his lo-fi camera aesthetic, incongruent and occasionally-jarring special effects and rapid-fire-cutting has turned it into a masterpiece of genre cinema, in which sex, violence, obsession and art (ballet, filmmaking, whatever) are a singular monster; the resulting product in the pursuit for perfection.

I won’t condescend to claim being a movie reviewer isn’t a lot of fun. However, it can be frustrating when you sit through unimaginative-film-after-unimaginative-film; you eagerly wait for a filmmaker to reignite the passion you once felt for cinema (and secretly fear is dead after enduring a spirit-crusher like Little Fockers). Readers, friends, family members and concerned acquaintances are still dumbstruck by my praising of The Human Centipede, but hey, you can’t discount the genuine pleasure a film can conjure merely by being different. We need cinema that is challenging, violent and debauched, particularly in an age when classification boards can overreact wildly when a film features honest sex scenes, or rate them unnecessarily high simply for having some swear words. Directors (working on a studio flick, or an indie) should continue to push boundaries and alarm their audiences. And that is precisely what Black Swan does.

I love this movie. I love it enough to ramble on, oh, for about 1200 words. I love it enough to give it five stars (which you may argue is merely a subjective designation, but so is all of film criticism, so get used to it). It might seem like a cop out to say, “If you’re anything like me, you’ll love Black Swan.” Well, how is that different to any other review? And if I’ve not yet convinced you of my adoration of Aronofsky’s film, perhaps the knowledge that after a year of reboots, remakes, prequels, sequels, threequels and The Wolfman, Black Swan has reignited my love for cinema and made me excited for the year ahead.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Black Swan arrives on DVD and Blu-ray June 1, 2011.

2 Responses to “Beautiful dark twisted fantasy – Black Swan review”

  1. Great review! The movie was gripping, well directed, well acted, original and sinister and beautiful at the same time! It also was well balanced and the tone was pitch perfect. Agreed! 5 Stars!!

  2. Excellent movie critique.

    It’s interesting though, that an actress such as Natalie Portman finally is given credit when she is cast in a Hollywood film which ultimately will be a box office hit.

    Simon, watch Cold Mountain again, fast foward to Natalie Portman’s character if you can’t stomach Kidman’s typical performance in her Ann Roth look alike Karl Lagerfeld coats. She has a small role in this movie but such a wonderful performance. That is when i realised how brilliant she is. I also said back in the 70’s at school that a certain male actor was going to be the greatest male actor of the 20th Century, the other kids looked at me as if i was mad, his name was Nicholson and one of those kids in my class became the Courier Mail movie critic, interesting.

    Candice Marie

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