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23 October 2010

A Tale of Two Swans

To say that Black Swan is intense is like saying that I like coffee and yet “intense,” “powerful” et al. are the best words I have to describe the film. I enjoyed it too but that feels wrong; the viewer becomes complicit with the protagonist, deriving pleasure from pain. Physically and psychologically uncomfortable to watch as it was, I was impressed with Darren Aronofsky’s latest film.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a twenty-something ballerina who strives for perfection in every move she makes and every thought she thinks. She has been dancing in the corps at her company in New York for four years and is determined to get the lead in the next show but first she must convince the director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) that she has the passion and wildness to play the Black Swan in Swan Lake as well as the control and dedication of the White Swan.

She’s more than a little nutty even before she gets the role. Her relationship with her mother (a former dancer who gave up her career to raise her daughter) is complex and fraught and she has a nasty habit of scratching herself until she bleeds and making herself throw up. Oh, and tearing off shards of her skin and cutting her fingers down to the quick with scissors. Much worse too but because Nina seems to be a little crazy, we’re never quite sure what is really happening and what she is seeing or imagining or dreaming. Regardless: it’s not very pleasant to watch someone make herself bleed, even if you know (or suspect) it isn’t real.

As the film progresses, Nina’s world becomes increasingly violent, not helped by the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunia), a beautiful, edgy dancer from San Francisco, who looks like she might win the lead role because she is a more convincing Black Swan than Nina. Lily tries to be Nina’s friend at times but it also seems like she’s trying to stab Nina in the back—perhaps even literally—and to steal her role for good.

Scott Franklin, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Darren Aronofsky

Now, it’s all a little confusing what with the mirrors everywhere, Nina’s fantasies and nightmares (or are they?), and the fact that on opening night, everyone is in costume, and from a distance, it can be hard to tell which dancer is wearing the costume. It also didn’t help me that one of the other dancers—Veronica—looks a lot like Lily and I thought at first that her character was supposed to be Nina’s rival and “Lily” would turn out to be a figment of Nina’s imagination.

Winona Ryder stole every scene her character Beth, a “practically menopausal” dancer, who is forced into retirement and is delightfully unhinged (she seemed to be borrowing from Brittany Murphy’s character in Girl, Interrupted). Sadly, her example does not make Nina think that she could end up like that; quite the opposite as Nina only sees perfection in Beth and tries to emulate her, stealing her lipstick and jewellery. And her knife.

The soundtrack was great too—always nice to hear the Chemical Brothers sampling Tchaikovsky—and a world apart from Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler (I don’t think it would have worked to have even Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise pimped out with some Swan Lake samples). At the Q&A afterwards, attended by Aronofsky, the producer, the ever charming Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis, Aronofsky said Black Swan was the other side of the coin of The Wrestler, although funnily enough, it took more than telling the ballet world that this film would “do for ballet what The Wrestler did for wrestling” to convince them the film was a good thing.

There were some members of the Royal Ballet in the audience who, when questioned at the end, said, “it was quite real.” Ironic for a film that draws and redraws the boundaries of reality time and time again. 


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