WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
When renowned and domineering ballet choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is casting his controversially original version of Swan Lake, the claws come out among all the ballerinas in the company.
Having ruthlessly confined his former lover – and leading lady – Beth (Winona Ryder) to the scrap heap, Thomas has no question that Nina (Natalie Portman) is the right girl to play the White Swan, with her innocence and grace. But he wants the same dancer to play the Black Swan and he’s worried that Nina doesn’t have the menace, anger and danger to pull it off.
Under pressure from a pushy mother (Barbara Hershey), a keen understudy (Mila Kunis) and the company’s jealous former prima-ballerina, Nina slowly feels herself going out of her mind as she tries to adapt her dancing – and fracture her personality – to play the two opposing roles.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
After exploring a has-been wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky now turns his attention to an up-and-coming ballet dancer.
There are odd similarities, from the alienation and pressure of the high-profile lifestyle, the determination to meet the high expectations you have for yourself, difficulties in relating to normal people and even the grace of the movements – both in ballet and wrestling.
The main difference between these two films is that in the case of Nina’s experiences, much of them are in her mind. Aronofsky provides us with a chilling, psychological thriller about ballet – almost as incongruous, on the surface, as Shaun of the Dead’s “romantic comedy – with zombies.”
The director references other genre movies – such as with feathers poking through Nina’s skin, like the thick hairs through Jeff Goldblum’s in Cronenberg’s The Fly – and adopts such horror staples as figures in the shadows, double-takes and figments of the imagination.
The catty scowls between the ballet dancers presents exactly the kind of prickly relationships you’d expect from a high-pressure world where there can be only one winner as the competition mounts and each girl will seemingly do anything to jeopardise her rivals for her own benefit. Presenting something as dainty as ballet in such combative style is a fascinating and fresh insight into an oft-seen world.
The key performers rise to the challenges set by Aronofsky’s direction – both at its elegant best and over-the-top worst. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis have already followed the auteur onto awards nomination lists and Portman will be hoping her Golden Globe will translate to a little golden man come the end of next month.
Black Swan is an impressive spectacle, in terms of its choreography, cinematography and production design – with much to admire both for ballet lovers and people who wouldn’t normally respond to a dance movie.
But at its heart, this is a psychological drama and the mental break-down is as hammy as it is harrowing, and while it unfolds neatly, it’s not tremendously fulfilling for viewers.
The audience is often left as confused as Nina, which – in a sense – helps us identify with her alienation, but trying to second-guess the reality won’t lead to a rewarding cinema-going experience, because it’s almost as if Aronofsky pulls his punches at the last minute and fails to take Nina’s predicament to its logical conclusion.
Opens nationwide Friday 21 January 2011