Film review: Black Swan

by **

Dear Dad

Black Swan opens with a pas de deux between a white swan and (a symbol of) death; it ends with a pas de deux between a white swan and death. The former is a dream; the latter is not — or is it? This ambiguity pervades Darren Aronofsky’s deeply affecting film. Scorching with manifestations of mental torment, the production illustrates violent implosions in the mindless quest for perfection.

While reviews on Aronofsky’s scalpel-sharp movie have been varied, those for Natalie Portman as the protagonist are unanimous in praise of her brilliant performance.

She plays Nina, a New York ballerina. Living with an erstwhile ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), ballet is her life and her life is ballet. When Beth (Winona Ryder) , the incumbent prima ballerina,  is forced — eventfully — into retirement, Nina is anointed for the coveted part in the new production of Swan Lake. While her precision and poise allow her to soar as the pristine White Swan, Nina is too constrained, too controlled, too “frigid” for the portrayal of the evil Black sister. Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the flamboyant ballet director, renown for his talent and sexual indiscretions by equal measure, becomes exasperated. “Let go!” He rants. “Lose yourself,” he urges. “Seduce me,” he instructs.

Having displaced Beth in the limelight, Nina soon finds herself threatened with a similar fate. Her nemesis is Lily (Mila Kunis) whose “imprecise, effortless, un-faking” moves are exactly what Nina finds impossible. A complex web of friendship and rivalry develops between them.

Aronofsky litters the action with rampant hallucinations, blurring the boundary between the real and the surreal. Her mother’s curious intentions and twisted psyche incarnate into caricature that comes fleetingly alive. Nina finds herself lacerated — unsure whether the wounds are self-inflicted. While Lily has given Nina the key to unlock her own sexuality, she seems about to take everything else away. And, Beth’s masochism seems uncannily mirrored in Nina’s own behaviour.

Black Swan vividly contrasts the choreographed glamour of the stage with the untidy passions of the backstage. It alternates between the bright lights and magical set and the dark whorls of psychological spheres. Still, the film has skilfully drawn parallels between the onstage tragedy and the offstage turmoil. It suggests that impersonation has to give way to personification for perfection to reign.

Kafkaesque in method, the movie has the potent flavour of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. A sequence in which Nina strips a ribbon of skin from her finger will make you cringe; one in which she clips her nails beyond the nailbed will make you squirm. There is the flash of an apparition when the studio lights fail; you gasp and grab when Beth impales her face repeatedly with an emery board. Clint Mansell’s music arrangement — variously haunting, breathtaking and sinister — fuels the atmosphere.

Hershey is memorable for her maternal embrace that smothers and throttles. Cassel’s artistic eloquence transcends his ruthlessness. Kunis’ smouldering sensuality sets imagination on fire while Ryder manages to etch her aggrieved presence on the audience’s minds despite making achingly few appearances. Nevertheless, the laurels no doubt go to Portman. With her gradual metamorphosis, from a “sweet girl” to a rebellious daughter, from a stoic learner curious about masturbation to a loose canon, a compassionate dancer to a hysterical slayer, she has delivered resoundingly to Aronofsky’s rigorous demands.

Black Swan is a disturbing film primarily about passion and perfection, jealousy and insecurity — even amongst the finest and the proudest. It casts a light on the dark side of glamour and thoughtfully asks: What is the price of being perfect? One thing is for sure: I shall not be able to sit through the next ballet performance without wondering about the pain behind the pirouettes.