Black Swan (2010)

Determined to put on a stripped down version of Swan Lake, ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) forces his previous muse (Winona Ryder) into early retirement and sets about finding a new Swan Queen. Needing someone who can portray the character’s inherent duality, Leroy is left to choose between two dancers; Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), whose pursuit of perfection sells her as the White Swan and Lily (Mila Kunis), who makes up in spirit what she lacks in precision. Winning the part after a brief display of the darkness her director is looking for, Nina’s determination to master the Black Swan proves her undoing as she slowly gives in to her passions and the paranoia that Lily is out to get her – life slowly beginning to imitate art.

Described by director Darren Aronofsky as a companion piece to 2008’s The Wrestler, Black Swan substitutes one art with another – as obsession and stubbornness lead to the downfall of another ageing performer. Unlike The Wrestler, however, Black Swan is less a meditation on the effects of such practices on the body as it is the psychological manifestations of over-mothered delusion and exhaustion. Aronofsky’s direction captures this beautifully, as he toys with doppelgänger myth to rapturous effect – his blending of hallucination and reality feeding the warped narrative while never losing the gravitas which comes from a stable grounding in reality.

Black Swan is a truly breathtaking movie, with Natalie Portman convincing entirely as a bubble-wrapped ballet dancer who fears she might have missed her moment in the spotlight, cursed to relive her mother’s begrudged life of disappointment and regret. Uptight, frigid and obedient to begin with, she is beautifully portrayed by a toned Portman who exudes the months of training that preceded filming. She is stunningly countered by the devil-may-care Mila Kunis, who seduces the audience with the same relentlessness with which she affects Nina. Vincent Cassle too, delights as the predatory director who appears drawn to instability – which he wastes no time in exploiting, his admiration of previous Swan Queen Beth MacIntyre impervious to the detrimental effect his guidance and her obsession ultimately had on her own psychology.

However, while Black Swan impresses and engages – unexpectedly boasting some of the most masterfully integrated CGI I’ve seen, the transformation scene was an absolute treat – it never truly takes flight. As Nina’s contrived conspiracy springs to life, it is never fully developed before she eventually implodes. Her acts of self-destruction seem a little too conscious of the MPAA, the film’s ‘mild peril’ at odd’s with the at-times pitch black subject matter. The episodes signalling her mental deterioration range from the embarrassingly tame (drinking alcohol, smoking, kissing a skin-head with *gasp* tattoos) to the suitably violent (a dressing room skirmish, introducing her terrifying mother’s hand to her bedroom door). Although there are a number of wince-worthy moments, this psychological horror is decidedly light on scares.

It is left to a malevolent rash, then, to herald in the new Nina. As a lesbian fling and disagreement with a mirror fail to arouse much of a reaction, it is with body horror that Black Swan truly comes alive. Much like the menacing leak in Dark Water, the spread of a skin irritation exudes Aronofski’s trademark suspense as Nina and her mother’s opposing reactions to it lead to some truly uncomfortable confrontations. As she pulls bristled feathers from her back, or snaps at herself with scissors, the relentless assurances that it is all in her head do little to maintain the ambiguity necessary for the film to work.

Black Swan is nevertheless spectacular, boasting unmatched choreography and a series of delightfully exploitative performances. However, while there are traces of the film’s seductively twisted potential, Black Swan has about as much bite as its disintegrating heroine. Like Nina Sayers, Black Swan dances the White Swan perfectly – delicate and technically brilliant – however it struggles to master the Swan Queen’s duality. Awkward, quiet and relatively uninteresting, the film’s inspired climax is not quite sufficient to counter the relatively unengaging opening act.

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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