Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a Class-A attack on the senses. Take the opening: a dazzling camera that bobs and weaves, throws a flurry of punches to the body before darting out and sticking the jab stalks New York ballet dancer Nina Sayers. It’s The Red Shoes versus Raging Bull and the beast is in the beauty. Spectral light slivers over Nina’s dancers form gripping her silhouette. She awakes and proclaims, “I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and kills herself.”
If only she knew what Aronofsky had in store for her. Black Swan is no dream but a sweat soaked night terror that drags the audience into Nina’s very own heart of darkness. Her subway journey is fraught with tension, that “Jacob’s Ladder” unease spreading across the screen as Nina becomes fixated on a girl in the next carriage. We feel no safer for Nina above ground as she approaches her ballet company. Aronofsy’s camera jams itself into the back of her neck, invading Nina’s personal space, marching her to her fate almost at gunpoint.
Yet Nina is a willing victim. Like a moth to the flame Aronofsky’s shot draws her inexorably to her odious director Thomas Leroy. Leroy has the face of a failed lion hiding behind his “genius” and flimsy French sexuality. He’s shaking up the order of things and the company’s principal dancer Beth MacIntyre is to be “retired” for his new raw version of Swan Lake. Nina is in the running but there’s a snag; while she can dance the White Swan perfectly Leroy doesn’t think she has the reckless abandon to dance the Black Swan. “I never see you lose yourself,” he letches, “I just want to be perfect” she replies timidly.
Her pursuit of perfection has ruined her. Nina is a wreck both physically and mentally. Her sleek body is breaking down one joint at a time; her strict diet wearing her skin away and her nerves are shot to shreds. Every time another dancer laughs or stares her paranoia festers like the inhuman marks on her back. Everywhere she sees her doubles—in her overbearing, control freak mother Erica Nina glimpses her pathetic failure, in her fallen hero Beth she sees the eventual price of success, and in the sexually direct new dancer Lily she spies her eventual undoing. “Ah ballerinas. No wonder you two look alike” quips a drinking partner to Nina and Lily.
When Nina unexpectedly wins the lead in Swan Lake her paranoid delusions and psychotic episodes ramp up to fever pitch. Aronofsky bombards the audience with his full bag of tricks as Nina’s world closes in around her; a club scene has that old green and red 3D movie quality watched without the glasses, Erica’s gauche portraits of her daughter conspire against Nina, and her reflections unleash their full force of her own narcissistic rage.
On the surface the “male gaze” seems to be in full effect as Nina is mentally tortured; the shame of masturbation, self-denial and eventual sexual fulfilment, the evil shadow of lesbianism, and the obsessive mother join forces to drive Nina mad. In truth Nina is a product of her environment; a brutal art form, her mother’s own failure and the psychological bullying of men like Thomas Leroy who hold petty and self-important thrones. And one glaring question remains: where is her father?
Ultimately Black Swan rides out any rough edges with Aronofsy’s bombastic style taking in influences from The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, Sisters, Sunset Boulevard, The Fly and Dressed To Kill. Vincent Cassel is suitably smarmy as Leroy, Mila Kunis is dynamic as Lily and Barbara Hershey gives a claustrophobic performance as Nina’s mother Erica. Natalie Portman as Nina is astonishing, her fragility not only evident in her acting but stunningly revealed in her dancing. Gradually this is replaced by full on red-eyed madness and a sinister genius when dancing as the Black Swan.
From beginning to end Black Swan is definitely en-pointe.