Black Swan

The initial response to being mesmerised was the maybe-inelegant but apt, ‘Whew’ (and then some). Tchaikovsky, Freud and Jung and many others would probably be quite excited by this exploration of the themes of Swan Lake. We are alerted to this at once with Nina (Natalie Portman in an intriguing performance) dancing with a frightening black swan – and then her waking. With a dream to open the film, there will be many dreams, hallucinations and fantasies along the way until the expected but also unexpected ending which is, in Nina’s words, ‘Perfect’.

For some audiences, the treatment of Nina’s perfectionism may be too much, too confronting, too graphic. But, Nina herself is both white swan and black swan and she has to dance both. This means that for the dancer, she has to be her ego character and her alter ego. Early in the film, Nina passes herself in a tunnel. She is going to encounter her other self more and more and she is going to find it personified in another dancer whom she sees as rival and demonises as a black swan (Mila Kunis as Lily, a performance that has to be both sinister and charming).

We see Nina as a girlish perfectionist, dominated by her loving but ever-demanding mother (Barbara Hershey is now playing mothers, and fits here because of some resemblance to Natalie Portman). She is driven but introverted, keeping to herself, without a social life, without personal and social development, tied to her mother’s apron strings.

According to the director of the ballet (Vincent Cassell bringing his capacity for being frightening and attractive fully to this role), Nina is all technique and needs to both find herself and lose herself. He is sexually aggressive and she begins to react with vigour rather than accepting passivity. He urges her to discover her sensual self, her sexual self, something which alarms and embarrasses her. Nevertheless, deep down there is her sensual black swan self which surfaces in the way desires do when they have been suppressed and can be integrated if acknowledged but which can also lead to madness and acting out the desires (in reality or in the mind) which is what happens to Nina.

And, all the times, there is the music and there is the dancing, a lot of music and a lot of dancing, but all in the context of the ballet’s plot and of Nina’s desperation to perform her dual role perfectly.

This should give pleasure and satisfaction to those audiences who are watching for the ballet and for the psychodrama. There are also elements of the horror film in the imagining of the black swan and of Nina’s fervid and violent imagination.

A personal difficulty: I would have preferred far less handheld camera photography. Of course, it has a realistic and sometimes disorienting purpose, especially as the camera so often follows Nina, trailing us along in her path. More satisfying is the constant use of mirrors – Nina contemplating herself, donning her costumes, putting on make-up, and occasionally glimpsing her black swan self.

Darren Arenofsky has not made so many films but they are all distinctive: science-fiction of Pi, the drug world of Requiem for a Dream, the fantasies of The Fountain and the earthy, violent world of The Wrestler. I admire all of them, but I found Black Swan the most interesting and challenging.

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