Dir.  Darren Aronofsky. USA. 2010.

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Following on from the themes of his previous effort The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s new pic sees him maturing into a more conventional director than many would have imagined, though retaining a signature ability of getting under your skin that even Hitchcock would have been proud of.

After the commercial and (general) critical failure of The Fountain, it’s interesting to see Aronofsky has scaled his ideas down to focus in on individuals. Purists may see it as a regression from more experimental output, though for me it seems more like he is finding his footing with ideas he is more able to realise, rather than attempting the fantastical for its own sake.

Where The Wrestler showed the story of an aging man trying to regain the fame and admiration of his fans at the expense of his health, White Swan follows the same bent, though through a female perspective in ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natlalie Portman). The key extra layer we have with this story is that Nina is not just concerned about the admiration of her fans, but perhaps more so, with the admiration of herself.

This theme is beautifully explored primarily through Nina’s home life, where she lives in an apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a now-retired ballet dancer. Her mother’s bitterness about her own failure to achieve stardom and fame are thinly veiled behind a faux-encouraging exterior, which becomes unstripped as the story progresses. Key scenes subtly convey their relationship, the highlight being when she buys her daughter a cake to show how proud she is that she has been given the starring role in Swan Lake, only to theatrically threaten to throw the whole cake in the bin when Nina sensibly requests just a small piece, needing to be careful with her figure for the performance. Envy erupts behind the frantic, desperate actions of her mother, bringing dark shades of their relationship to the fore.

As a dancer, Nina demands perfection from herself, something you sense disciplined into her from her mother. But perfection is never possible, and a life lived in denial of this can leave a dark mirror-image of yourself waiting to be revealed. For Nina, this denial erupts in self-harm. She claws chunks of skin from her back with her fingernails. Her mother is aware of her history of self-abuse, and is often seen manically cutting off Nina’s fingernails, with amplified, skin-tingling sound effects. In fact, sound is expertly used through the whole film to make your body tighten up and cringe in terror. There is something expressionistic and primal to it that makes you feel that you yourself are in danger and part of Nina’s unstable world.

The second half of the film is where the film really comes into its own, and explores itself in interesting ways. The self-harm scenes become dipped into hallucinations – is she doing it to herself or just imagining doing it? Lines between the reality of the rehearsal s for the production (in which she has to play the dual role of Black and White swan - her having no problem with the innocent White, though unable to find the darker seductiveness of the Black) and her life outside of it, meld into one. Obsession has taken over her, and her world has become nothing but claustrophobic Swan Lake references. Urged by the ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to let herself go and embrace the dark side a little, she finds herself unable at first, though she later lets it become a burning necessity for her to achieve perfection in her performance, and takes it to a violent, heart-breaking extreme.

The final scene of the movie gives everything it should, much like The Wrestler did, without overplaying itself. She lies dying on the stage behind the curtain, feeling she has achieved perfection in her mind, but we see past her violent fantasy to the reality of self-abuse. She had gone too far, taken it too seriously, and Leroy and the rest of the theatre troupe look on in disbelief, unaware of the fantasy world she had been living in. A shocking moment of realisation sets in for us all as the lines between fantasy and reality separate, leaving a dying starlet gazing emptily above at the bright lights of fame.

A cautionary tale of obsession and the strains and effects of the pursuit of fame, Black Swan delivers on all counts, with excellent realisation, and a superb performance by Portman throughout. Cassel is acceptable as Leroy, though by his usual exceptional standards, doesn’t bring as much as he could to the film. He is used more as a background piece, as are most of the supporting cast, which in a way makes the film work better as an immersion into Nina’s subjective viewpoint, though as a Cassel fan, disappoints a little. Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey stand out, and help bring out interesting dynamics to the story. Dialogue in the film is at times a little forced or over-studied in some early exchanges, though is fine thereafter. Cinematography is predominantly hand-held, and is most effective when involving itself in the dance rehearsal sequences, though also yields some great results from strobe-light images, which are well edited together in the nightclub scenes. Colours are mostly muted, with blacks, whites and shades of grey giving a monochromatic feel to the picture, while lots of mirrors are used in the mise-en- scène to add a sense of claustrophobia and reveal Nina’s anxieties and insecurities in her differing images of herself.

Shaun McDonald

See Howard Schumann's review of Black Swan here.
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