Black Swan

To the UK premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, at the LFF. As glitzy premieres go, it was a pretty good one – Aronofsky, the gorgeous Mila Kunis and the effortlessly charismatic Vincent Cassel were all in attendance, and the after-party took place in the glamorous surroundings of the Royal Opera House, complete with spraypainted black swans for decor, amidst seemingly endless Jameson cocktails. My judgement and movement might consequently have been impaired at the end of a long day, but my critical faculties remain undimmed. At least I didn’t lurch towards the terribly dapper Aronofsky and yell ‘Darren! Wolverine 2! What the fuck, man?!’

Aronofsky has described Black Swan as a companion piece to his acclaimed drama The Wrestler, and although this might seem a frivolous analogy, the kind of thing that a bored director might say to amuse himself during endless interviews, it actually holds true. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a talented but repressed ballerina whose dream it is to dance the White Swan in Swan Lake. However, the ballet’s charismatic but brutal director Tomas Lefrory (Cassel), who is notorious for having romantic relationships with his leading ladies, informs her that she lacks the passion and daring to become the Black Swan, an equally integral part of the ballet. Beset by her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) and a mysterious, sensual new addition to the corps, Lilly (Kunis), Nina finds herself embracing her dark side with alacrity. Or does she?

Yes, we’re in the realm of that old favourite, the psychological thriller, and Aronofsky gleefully seizes the chance to homage numerous classics, ranging from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes to Polanski’s Repulsion, with echoes of his own Requiem For A Dream thrown in. Portman goes to pieces at least as impressively as Ellen Burstyn in the earlier film, and delivers certainly her best performance to date as the dancer who’s a pirouette short of the full performance. That said, here, as elsewhere in Aronofsky’s work, the suspicion lingers that the character is being at least partially objectified from a male perspective,whether Lefroy’s or the director’s himself. Certainly, some of the more explicit sexual content does have the vague air of male fantasy to it. More seriously, the film doesn’t so much shun its Grand Guignol trappings as embrace them utterly, building to a finale that justifies the comparisons with The Wrestler, albeit in entirely different contexts and trappings. Nina, for all Portman’s skill, is nowhere near as sympathetic as Mickey Rourke’s Randy The Ram, meaning many might find the film emotionally compromised.

Set against this are the film’s obvious strengths. As ever with Aronofsky, the cinematography (by Matthew Libatique) and score (by Clint Mansell, making heavy use of Tchaikovsky) are impeccable and exciting, making the world of dance come alive in visceral and unexpected ways. Even if you hate the very concept of ballet,  you’re guaranteed to find its presentation here electrifying. It helps that it’s so well cast; apart from Portman, Cassel’s character is intriguingly ambiguous – is he just an opportunistic lecher who seduces his leading ladies as a perk, or is he in fact a brilliant Svengali who can unlock hidden depths? – and there’s excellent support from Kunis, Hershey and Winona Ryder in a bitter recurring cameo as Nina’s predecessor in the company.

Some will undoubtedly find the film silly and overblown, and its gradual recourse to horror and thriller tropes unworthy of a subject that might have benefited from a more restrained approach. (Who’d have thought that it contains considerably more ‘boo!’ jump scares than Matt Reeves’ Let Me In?) But for all that, it’s gripping, superbly made and confirms Aronofsky as one of the most exciting talents working today. Now, as for Wolverine 2….

 

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