WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Dedicated ballerina Nina Sayers wins the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a make-or-break production of Swan Lake. However, the dream soon becomes a nightmare as Nina is haunted by director Thomas’ highly personal demands that she find the seductive Black Swan within her. The search brings Nina to the end of her wits, which may be exactly what rival ballerina Lily wants.
It’s a red letter day for the corps of the New York ballet when director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) makes two exciting announcements: first, his plans for the new season include a stripped-down version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; second, whether she likes it or not, prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) is being retired, meaning there’s a vacancy for the prized role of Swan Queen. Technically, Nina (Natalie Portman) has all the attributes for the role, and has all the virtues to play the White Swan, but Thomas isn’t convinced that she can also embody the wicked Black Swan – until she violently rebuffs his attempted seduction.
Nina is given the part under strict orders that she explores her passionate, sexual side, but rehearsals are fraught with difficulties: there’s the threat posed by precocious newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), who might be a friend, a scheming rival, or something else entirely; there’s the barriers presented by Nina’s overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself. More than these, there’s Nina’s own mental fragility. As opening night approaches, she succeeds in bringing out her darker, freer side, but suffers increasingly bizarre injuries and/or hallucinations, not helped when Beth is crippled after walking in front of a car. Dreaming – at the very least – of murder, can Nina keep body and mind together for curtain up?
Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) has always been an uncompromising director, and Black Swan may be his Marmitiest* film yet. The look of the film is exquisite, with ballet sequences that are both convincing and surprisingly interesting (to this layman, anyway), and which effectively bring the exclusive art form to a broad cinema audience. The film’s obsession with reflection is also very well handled, given the inherent problems of filming with mirrors.
More importantly, Portman is excellent as Nina, and regardless of how much ballet she does or doesn’t perform herself, she effortlessly dominates the film, portraying Nina at her most neurotic and her most sensuous with equal aplomb. Mila Kunis plays Lily with slutty relish, and Hershey is scarily imposing as Nina’s overbearing mother, living her life vicariously through her daughter‘s painful devotion. Unfortunately, Ryder doesn’t get enough screen time to make much of an impression; and although Cassel’s Thomas is creepy enough, it feels as though he’s been chosen for his European accent as much as anything else.
None of which answers the question of whether the film is any good. In truth, it’s a difficult question to answer, because the answer depends entirely on how much you enjoy Black Swan’s ambiguity – are we seeing the things Nina sees in her disturbed mental state? Or, since some of the bizarre things that seem to happen are clearly impossible, should we interpret it all as symbolism? Either way, it reminds me of films such as American Psycho, Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream in a fairly positive sense, with a helping of Cronenburg-esque body horror thrown in for good measure.
On the other hand, I wasn’t remotely as caught up in the story as I wanted to be. There was tremendous potential in Nina’s story, a talented dancer held in pre-pubertal limbo by her mother to the extent that she’s terrified by her own sexual potential, resulting in an inner fight for her sanity, her soul and her role; but Black Swan relentlessly reduces her struggle to a one-dimensional voyage of sexual discovery and paranoia.
I understand that this chimes in with the theme of the ballet, but it wasn’t long before I’d had quite enough of Portman pleasuring herself, or others (perhaps) doing it for her. And despite the surfeit of sexuality, the film operates in a totally loveless and humourless world, which coupled with Nina’s painfully uptight personality makes it hard for the viewer to get emotionally involved. I know there will be the same ‘you don’t get it’ arguments that I mention in my review of The Fountain, but I know exactly what the director is aiming at; Aronofsky just doesn’t make me feel it (whereas, watching Requiem for a Dream, I felt everyone’s pain much more than I wanted to). On the plus side, the story here is on far more solid ground than The Fountain; but Black Swan does share some of that film’s po-faced sobriety (The Wrestler, too, suggests the director isn’t particularly interested in the lighter side of life).
Black Swan is unquestionably a dramatic, striking film, particularly when it comes to opening night, and Portman puts in a brilliantly troubled turn throughout. Yet it’s really hard to know what to make of Nina’s quest for perfection when her sauciest efforts to find the Black Swan within her, and her most disturbing visions, still had me looking at my watch. Like ballet, the film obviously took massive dedication to make it look as good as it does. Regrettably, like ballet (and unlike Marmite, should the manufacturers want to sponsor me!), I didn’t care for it much.
NOTES (for territories without Marmite, bless you): Thanks to a bizarrely successful advertising campaign, this means you’ll either love it or hate it.