Black Swan is directed by Darren Aronofsky and co-written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin. It stars Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey & Winona Ryder. Clint Mansell scores the music and Matthew Libatique is the cinematographer.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is committed to her art as a ballet dancer, she lives a secular life with her over protective mother (Hershey), herself a one time dancer. When Nina's ballet company announce that a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake is seeking a new prima to play the Swan Queen, Nina pushes herself still further to land the role. But with the role comes more pressures. Her instructor, Thomas (Cassell) urges her to explore darker passions within so as to nail the Black Swan part of the role, her mother becomes even more over-bearing and a new arrival to the production, Lily (Kunis), pushes her fragile state of mind to the limit. Perhaps more worrying is that Nina appears to have a doppelgänger lurking within her enclosed world....
Black Swan, once the dust has settled, will prove to be a most divisive film. More so when under the scrutiny of a repeat viewing. How it holds up after the exhilaration of that first viewing has faded will be most interesting to observe. For Black Swan "is" at times "exhilarating", brilliantly performed by its cast principals, and in Aronofsky's hands it's directed with a hand-held panache befitting one of America's most talented directors: but is it the sum of its parts? Aronofsky has been quick to let people know that he views Black Swan as the sibling to The Wrestler, and fact is is that he reworks a lot of that film's particular aspects into this Swan Lake skin itcher; only now he's cloaking his subject in the darker side of the human mental condition. So if it isn't broke, don't fix it then. Be it the back drops (dim and raw), specialist entertainment professions or the suffering for their art central characters, Aronofsky clearly isn't pushing for a career reinvention here. However, he ups his ante visually and shows himself to be a dab hand at psychological horror. Other critics have name checked the likes of Polanski, De Palma and Cronenberg, those are all fair comparisons, and in the grand scheme of things, enormous pats on the back for Aronofsky.
He is also a director able to get career defining performances out of his charges, many have been quick to remember Mickey Rourke's much lauded turn as The Wrestler, lets not forget the performance he garnered out of Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, too. Portman, tho, tops both considerably, pushing herself, like her character, to the limit for the role; with her director now on record after Portman's win for Best Actress at the BAFTA's as saying she's the best actress he has worked with thus far. Both Portman and Kunis undertook months of ballet training to put some reality into the film, with Portman gaining praise for her dancing in ballet circles. But from here is where the problems in the film begin to unravel. Ballet dancers we know are driven, it's a tough form of the arts, but in some quarters of the medium the film has been criticised for portraying the dancers negatively, and for over exaggerating their lives. It's a good point, because my lady partner who I first watched the film with felt that Nina comes across as a whiney whinger, and she is right. Nina as a character is hard to feel any sympathy for. This is more evidently annoying upon a second viewing, so much so it's debatable if you will even care about Nina once the applause has died down at the finale. Great performance, but written as unsympathetic or otherwise? Eh?
Another issue is the matter of sense, or the not making of to be exact. Many greats behind the camera have thrived on producing head scratchers, complex pieces designed to nag away at you as you try to sleep. The narrative here doesn't suggest anything complex, yet incidents don't add up, with one critical incident rendering the finale as questionable. It's also awash with clichés, but the crafty Aronofsky is able to mask such issues with smoke and mirror tactics, calling on his skills to avert the eyes with enjoyable visual flourishes that are essential to the tonal flow of his film. Technically all is wonderful and at times rawly lurid, sweeping cameras getting up close and personal, the music, the choreography and the grandiose sets, all impact hard on the viewing experience. While the film's blending of themes opens it up to a wider demographic audience; even if ultimately it's caught in the void between camp horror and serious psychological drama. Away from Portman the support is also crowd pleasing, Kunis is sly and slinky, Cassell is Mephistophelian and Hershey reminds us all that she can act.
It's sure to be a the top of many critics best of lists for 2010/2011, partly for being not of the norm and asking for use of the cranium: and partly because director and lead actors make it compulsive viewing. While it's sure to engage fans of dance and classical music. But after taking off the tutu and slippers, and unwinding with a glass of wine, it shows itself to be a film that's far from flawless, and certainly not the masterpiece that already some insist the film to be. Maybe it should be watched just once and not pored over to truly get the benefit? Maybe? 7.5/10