‘Just stop it!’ a desperate yell by a man sitting behind me during a particularly gory moment when Nina (Natalie Portman) appeared to be tearing the skin from her finger. Perhaps he thought it was going to be a nice, if a little Oscar baiting, film about ballet – it isn’t either of these things. In fact what you get is broken mirrors, doppelgangers, self harm, lesbianism, tinkly scary music boxes, a dash of Italian giallo and acting so brilliantly hammy it belongs at a butchers.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a young ballet dancer given the role of playing the Swan Queen. While she is perfect for the fragile, vulnerable white swan, her company director (played by the superb Vincent Cassel) she must unlock her darker side to play the seductive black swan. In the wings are three women – the clingy mother (Barbara Hershey), Beth (Winona Ryder) the former star of the company forced out by age and the wild, dangerous Lily (Mila Kunis) – whose conflicting influences begin to tear Nina from the straight and narrow and into a realm of haunting reflections and mounting psychopathy.
The fact that I watched Black Swan almost entirely with a huge grin on my face is testament to a film which isn’t afraid to throw everything at the screen and see what sticks. It is a completely deranged movie, melodramatic silliness but more fun than I can remember having in the cinema. Although described as a companion piece to The Wrestler it is difficult to imagine that they were even made by the same man. Gut wrenching realism is replaced by melodrama and stylisation, a character who we are meant to feel the deepest sympathies for replaced by one who we watch spiral into insanity with sadistic enjoyment. It is almost as if Scorcese had made both Raging Bull and Repulsion. What it does have in common with The Wrestler, as many have pointed out, is an exploration of artistic obsession and two protagonists who are fundamentally ‘pieces of meat’ to be exploited by their mentors and their audience. This is clearly an area of interest for Aaronovsky but the utterly contrasting styles of these two films shows perhaps that he has moved from ‘serious’ exploration to a pastiche of a subject which he previously found so significant.
This is not to criticise Aaronoksky’s direction, which as usual is expert on a project which allows for Matthew Libatique’s poised yet extravagant camerawork. Natalie Portman has deservedly garnered praise and a likely Oscar win, for never letting her performance stray into complete screaming madness but keeping a lid on her increasingly fragile grip on reality. Barbara Hershey is excellent as the almost incestous mother figure, while Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis exude danger as the ballerina’s past and present. Vincent Cassel deserves special mention as Thomas as the sleazy yet irresistible company director turning up his French accent to almost ‘Allo ‘Allo! levels.
I confess I was completely caught up in Black Swan with all its raging preposterousness. This is a film which deserves not to be taken seriously and that is the highest praise I can give it. It truly is a masterpiece although not of the kind you may think. Somehow or other a real genre film that is never less than superb entertainment, has slipped through the Academy’s net and I for one hope it cleans up.