Natalie Portman delivers the stand-out female performance of 2010 in the breathtaking psychological thriller Black Swan – a film which is at once wickedly sexy and deeply disturbing.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan is set against the backdrop of a prestigious New York dance company and their performance of the classic ballet Swan Lake. It is, as Vincent Cassell’s character says, a ballet that has been “done to death … but not like this”. Not like this indeed. It is the intention of Cassell’s character – sexy, ruthless dance director Thomas – to strip the ballet and make it more visceral, and it’s something that Aronofsky parallels in his direction of the film.
Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, an immensely fragile ballerina with only one goal – absolute perfection. She spends hours alone in the studio and in front of the mirror at home, refining her technique. The only world she knows outside of the studio is the cramped apartment she shares with her proud and overprotective mother, played by Barbara Hershey. When Thomas announces that Nina will be the ballet’s Swan Queen – and will dance the demanding dual role of the Black and White Swans – we watch her already fragile state of mind begin to fracture further. She is constantly reminded that she is too innocent, too uptight to successfully dance the Black Swan – despite Thomas’ attempts to seduce her and his encouragement that she explores her as yet untapped sexuality. The presence of the free-spirited and wildly sexy Lily (Mila Kunis in a charged performance) only pushes Nina further over the edge, as she convinces herself that Lily is out to steal her role.
Superbly cast, intensely filmed and set to an exquisite score by Clint Mansell, Aronofsky has pulled together a powerhouse of talent to produce Black Swan. The outstanding supporting performances by Kunis, Cassell and Hershey and a brief but terrifyingly memorable appearance by Winona Ryder make this one of the best cast films of 2010. Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique – who worked with Aronofsky on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain – combine uncomfortable close-ups, shaky hand-held shots and epic wide-screen shots to create a charged atmosphere that doesn’t relax for even a frame.
It’s a film of parallels and contradictions – the softness of classical dance with the charged, emotionally damaged undercurrent of the dancers of themselves. There are moments of true beauty on the ballet’s stage coupled with split toenails, torn cuticles and blood. And Aronofsky is anything but subtle. Nina is swathed in pink and white for much of the film and surrounded by stuffed animals and a music box which plays the theme from Swan Lake as she falls asleep. She is the White Swan, as Thomas so often reminds her. Juxtaposed against her innocence is smoky-eyed, hard-partying Lily – complete with a black pair of wings tattooed on her back – who epitomises the dark sensuality of the Black Swan. The parallels of Nina’s world and the Swan Lake ballet become clearer as the film gains momentum – culminating in one of the most chilling film finales I’ve seen.
The visual device of the mirror is everywhere – the word “whore” scrawled on a bathroom mirror in blood-red lipstick, the softly lit backstage mirrors, the multifaceted mirror in the entrance hall of Nina’s home and at the climax of the film, the shattering of the looking-glass in her dressing room. Nina’s self-loathing is reflected back at her, taunting her. Even without mirrors, Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of complete strangers – but always darker, more terrifying versions of herself.
The viewing experience is relentlessly tense and emotionally charged. Aronofsky manages to take a slightly chaotic script – which combines elements of various genres – horror, thriller, romance and classical dance – to produce an over-the-top and exaggerated film, which is ultimately a strength, not a weakness. There are moments of absurdity and impossible happenings, which, seen through Nina’s eyes, are reality and certainty. There are flickerings of things, glimpses of the strange and obscene out of the corner of our eyes. Did that picture move? Who was that woman in the street? It’s all filmed in a hyper-realistic style that provides an ultimately uncomfortable yet entirely absorbing viewing experience.
And of course, Natalie Portman’s performance is the absolute triumph of Black Swan. Much as he did in The Wrestler, Aronofsky anchors the film completely around his star – and Portman is well up the challenge. She is believably fragile and out-of-control, soft-spoken and yet still absolutely mesmerising. She is in control of her performance and her body at all times, from the opening scenes where Nina is pure and crystalline to her ultimate transformation. She is truly frightening and frightened at the same time, deeply flawed and yet a character we want to break free. She’s picked up almost every award that she’s been nominated for and it’s not hard to see why. Portman is on fire in Black Swan, consuming everything in her path on her journey of self-destruction.
Easily one of the best movies I have seen over the past few months, Black Swan is an absolute triumph of filmmaking.