Winner - Best Actress (Natalie Portman)
FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
In a dream, the movie opens with a dancer bathed in white, under spotlight against the harsh dark around her. From the shadows emerges a dancer swathed in black, soon revealing himself to be Rothbart – the villain of Swan Lake. Taking the dancer under his cape, she emerges as the White Swan.
Black Swan is a powerful portrayal of one person’s desire to reach perfection in their field, and the lengths they will go to get there – including ones they didn’t realise they were capable of. The movie focuses on ballet (and Swan Lake) however, this is not a movie about the nuances of ballet, it is a dark, psychological piece of art with elements of violence, sex, drugs splattered throughout, along with mental visions and hallucinations – a look into the psyche that talent and the desire to be at the top brings.
Natalie Portman is sensational as Nina, the epitome of the White Swan, and her gradual transformation into the twisted Black Swan is incredible to watch. The emotion she spilled into the role is huge, and the effort she put into the role – including the ballet teachings – is top notch, a sweeping performance. She is believable as the cutesy, innocent, virginal girl we see initially and just as believable as the darkness gradually takes over – to see her snarl “I am the Swan Queen!” was a great moment after what had gone before. It’s a fantastic performance which led to the Academy Award for Best Actress, and quite rightly too.
The supporting cast are all excellent as well; Mila Kunis as the loose, untethered Lily was a great choice (she was the first to be approached for the movie) and her mischievous, flirty nature are perfect for the movie. Kunis also underwent rigorous training for the movie, and her unrestrained public life mixed with her passionate dance is terrific. Vincent Cassel is great as the fiery, passionate, sexed up director – who is, let’s face it, a bastard throughout the movie but played with such unwavering fervour that it’s hard to not buy into his beliefs. Barbara Hershey steals the supporting actors light as the dangerous, jealous, desperate and possibly incestuous mother. Her imposing performance could be felt in every scene she was in, and her ethereal presence loomed over Nina throughout. She was a bit terrifying!
The spiral into the depths of chaos reminded me a lot of Requiem for a Dream in many ways, the hard edged examples of psychological states and the almost claustrophobic depiction of it. The quick cuts in between frenzied shots in the club (or in the bathroom and bedrooms) build the scene and add a layer of uncertainty to the shots, helping us feel just as disorientated as the characters involved. Aronofsky has compared Black Swan to his previous work The Wrestler and it’s clear to see why, the two main characters putting their bodies and minds on the line to reach the zenith of their professions. Additionally, it was shot in the same manner as The Wrestler with the same grainy, grungy feeling to it, as well as the camera work closely following the protagonists in full flight. The large use of sex and sexual suggestion throughout the film is prominent, playing against the psyche of Nina’s White Swan image, and there’s no getting away from it. Thomas tells Nina to go home and “touch herself” (which she does, twice), the scenes in the club, the fantasy sequence between Nina and Lily – just to name a few. Aronofsky doesn’t turn the camera away either, instead getting as close to the action as possible – necessary for the power needed or overkill? The debate is there to be had.
The film is best classed as a psychological thriller, though creepiness trickles into the story slowly. Throughout the movie, strange abrasions appear on Nina’s back; when she walks into her mother’s art room filled with portraits, we see the eyes in one of the faces slowly start to move; in nearly every scene in the movie there are mirrors; battered feet and skin peeling off; her mother becomes an progressively disconcerting presence as the film progresses; there’s a dirty old man being…dirty on a train, and a stabby scene in a hospital with a nail file. Also, is Thomas trying to relax Nina ahead of the big performance or is he coming on to her? He frequently discusses sex with her and his sexual instructions to try in her spare time, not forgetting his ‘other’ advances. Also, aside from looking out for a mirror in every scene, keep an eye out for the swans that appear, all through the eyes and mind of Nina.
For me, I struggle to find concrete negatives with the story. Was it slightly convenient how easy it was for Nina to land the Swan Queen role based on one bite? Yes. However, the story covers the reasoning behind the decision. Though the film deals with Nina’s descent into losing her mind, from the beginning of the film it seems she is already somewhat unhinged – maybe due to her mother’s overpowering nature, her desire to be better, who knows? Does this lessen the impact of the movie? No. The way Aronofsky (and Matthew Libatique, director of photography) shoots his films – tight, claustrophobic, and grainy – won’t be to everyone’s taste either, as will the sexual references that hang over over the film. All of the above have a place in the movie however, but again, won’t please everybody who watches the movie.
Black Swan is a deliciously grungy film about ballet, whilst delving deep into mental states and not being afraid to push the envelope that bit further. Whilst some may find the swan transformations jarring, and maybe even the ‘horror’ scenes, taking into context that they are hallucinations, I have no issue with them. Fantastically acted and brilliantly shot, Black Swan is a must. You may love it, you may not, but it's a must watch either way.
October 2nd 2016