Or to borrow another song quote: “Nina pretty ballerina!”
This is by far one of the best Hollywood offerings in a long time!
The film, under the superb direction of Daniel Aronofsky, apparently drew inspiration from Dostoyevsky’s The Double. In Dostoyevsky’s novella, the main character is forced to grapple with his doppelgänger, who seeks his ruin. This idea is brilliantly superimposed onto the synopsis of the ballet Swan Lake, to give us the plotline for Black Swan.
The result `is a taut psychological thriller, set in the deep recesses of the New York City Ballet. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in its corps de ballet, and working hard to land a principal rôle. She lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) who is herself a failed dancer, and seems at once eager for her daughter to succeed where she hasn’t, but with a twinge of envy as well. Incest and sexual abuse are hinted at more than once, and it gives a clue to the deep psychological scars Nina already has undergone. (Where is her father? We aren’t told).
The film opens with a dream that Nina is having, wherein she is dancing the rôle of the Swan Queen, but haunted by the menacing presence of sorcerer von Rothbart. The stage is set right from here, for the deep, dark, blue-tinged, brooding hue that almost the entire film is steeped in.
Nina’s dream comes true, and the director of the ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) begins to drive her mercilessly to play both aspects of the rôle; the “good” or the white swan Odette; and the “evil” twin sibling, black swan Odile. While coaxing her to explore the sensual limits of the rôles, he himself callously crosses the boundaries of propriety, into sexual harassment.
What follows is a superb cinematographic depiction of a woman who in trying to give of her best (“I want to be perfect”), teeters on the brink of insanity under the strain. Is her colleague Lily (Mila Kunis) really trying to usurp her rôle, or is it Nina’s fevered imagination? Could it be that Lily just wants to be friends, but Nina’s paranoia blinds her to this? What about Nina’s “double”, who keeps cropping up throughout the film, initially sporadically and innocuously (it happens so fleetingly that if you blink, you could miss it), but with devastating evil force and frequency towards the climax?
One cannot help but feel for Nina in this film. The loneliness, the agony she goes through come through so intensely to the viewer as to be almost unbearable.
A Google search of reviews of Black Swan seems to unearth two polarised camps: those who absolutely love the film; and those who detest it with equal vigour. I have to say I find myself in the first.
Yes, the plotline is a little over-the-top, but this is true of most opera and ballet. Aronofsky seems to revel in this fact, and in so doing has created a cinematic gem.
Portman’s performance has been criticised, not only for the dispute over how much of the dancing was actually her own, but also for the limited histrionic range of her character. But Portman takes on Nina’s persona with such conviction, that she in effect becomes Nina. And she switches between the two sides of the character in a heartbeat, to chilling effect. This to me is her forte, and is the best role I have ever seen her in, to date.
The ending (I won’t spoil it for you) is deliberately ambiguous: is this her imagination at work again? Or is this a classic theatrical finale, worthy of the operatic stage?
A lot of the touches are overdone to the point of being in-your-face: Lily has a penchant for wearing black, just in case you didn’t quite “get” the Black Swan allegory. So does the fussy, mommie-dearest Hershey. In the bathtub scene, you actually have a bath sponge by the wall, with a white swan motif against a black background.
I have this habit of waiting until all the credits go up at the end. I was quite amused to read that the ballet choreographer for the film is a gentleman called Benjamin Millepied! He has a cameo rôle in the film as the Prince.
I read a comment on a review website where an alleged mental health worker pans the film for a less-than-accurate depiction of mental illness. Is it borderline personality disorder? Is it schizophrenia? In her opinion, it is not a realistic depiction of either, or of any known condition. But to me, this is missing the point. Mimi in La Bohème is hardly a stereotype of a tuberculosis victim, but it takes nothing away from the powerful drama. And the same is true for Black Swan.
Be that as it may, this film will go down in the annals of cinematic history on so many levels, not least among them being its spotlight on the human mind and mental illness.
Clint Mansell’s clever use of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music score to add urgency to the dramatic music is another great highlight. He takes a tiny fragment from the beginning of the ballet, and turns it into something wonderfully sinister.
If you haven’t seen Black Swan yet, you must.
One last, rather irreverent quip about the film (no offence meant):
Swan Flake! ;)