Black Swan is the first great horror movie of 2011. Darren Aronofsky has taken the beloved movie trope of the doomed ballerina, and created something new, sumptuous and berserk out of it. It references Polanski’s Repulsion, the moody, lush quality of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and most boldly, the work of David Cronenberg. The body horror may be going on in her head, but for poor Nina Sayers, the changes that happen as she struggles with the dual roles of the White and Black Swan are all too real.
It’s a simple story. Nina is a ballerina plucked from obscurity in the corps to dance a career-defining role as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. She is precise, technically perfect. But passionless, controlled. Her quest to embrace the sensuality and darkness at the heart of the role, the evil twin, the Black Swan, leads her down the path to madness.
It’s a film about duality, and Aronovsky makes that clear from the start. The film is jammed full with mirrors, obscured windows, and all sorts of other reflective surfaces that offer up warped views of the world. We often see two or more versions of Nina in the frame. As her sanity starts to fray, those mirror images start to show something other than reality. Her reflection no longer maps to her, taking on it’s own life. When that happens, she is free to release herself from her old existence, taking on the mantle of the Black Swan both mentally and physically.
Like the tortured, driven characters in much of Cronenberg’s work, and indeed in Aronovsky’s own extraordinary debut Pi, Natalie Portman plays Nina as fragile, unworldly yet driven to succeed at all costs, even if that cost is mental and physical transformation. When Thomas, the exploitative and abusive head of the corps (played with sleazy physicality by Vincent Cassel), demands that she become the Black Swan, that is exactly what she does. It’s a tour de force, and Portman is on record as throwing herself into the role, training for ten months before shooting started. She makes a convincing prima ballerina, and worryingly, an even more convincing psychotic.
The film works beautifully at blurring the boundaries between the real and Nina’s mirror world, undoing murders and seductions in the blink of an eye, showing us flashes and warped reflections of her unravelling mind. The atmosphere throughout is unsettling. There are a few shockhits, but for the most part Aronofsky keeps the mood low-key, and his audience on edge. It’s a brave, bold and scary film. For once, I’m behind the Oscar hype. This one deserves to fly.
(WDW isn’t so much of a fan, for reasons that I can totally get behind. Her contrasting review is up on MovieBrit.)