AFED #23: Black Swan (US, 2010); Dir. Darren Aronofsky

The closest I usually get to the ballet is passing a statue of Margot Fonteyn in Reigate on my way to work every morning, so my understanding of it derives almost exclusively from the cinema. Generally the ballet world is depicted as a hotbed of seething emotions and bitter rivalries where egomaniacal artistic directors place their charges under nigh-unbearable pressure to perform. Strangely enough it seems to be a lot like the movie business.

Darren Aronofsky's latest film doesn't have any interest in altering that perception; in fact it milks the cliche to glorious effect. As with Powell and Pressberger's 1948 film The Red Shoes the offstage drama becomes an extended metaphor for the ballet's story, in this case Swan Lake. Like its predecessor Black Swan is an overblown melodrama that blurs fantasy and reality, but its portrait of madness is altogether more immersive.

Natalie Portman is an actress I've never been enamoured with. It's partially due to having watched her grow up on screen; I can never shake off my memories of the orphaned little girl in Leon and consequently there's an awkwardness to watching her in adult roles. Yet her screen presence is also somewhat insipid; she has all the beauty of Audrey Hepburn without the warmth or charisma.

Perhaps Aronofsky was at least conscious of that perception when he cast her as Nina, the timid young ballerina who's bestowed lead role as the White Swan in a ballet company's revival of Swan Lake. Although a technically proficient dancer Nina's greatest challenge, according to ruthless director Tony Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is to cut loose from her inhibitions and embody the persona of the character's evil twin, the Black Swan. It's the classic Jungian dichotomy.

In discovering her darker, more sensual side Nina is beset by demons both inside and out, and as the story develops their provenance becomes increasingly uncertain. At home she suffers the asphyxiating attentions of an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), whilst at the company the ghost of her washed-up predecessor Beth (Winona Ryder) looms large.

But it's the arrival of newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) which really begins to loosen Nina's grip on reality. Like a wilder, freer version of Nina she seems to grasp intuitively the role of the Black Swan and becomes a rival for Tony's attention. But is she actually a figment of Nina's imagination; her own evil doppelganger?

Up to a point Black Swan can be seen as a companion piece to Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler. Both share a morbid fascination with the injuries and physical toll inflicted by the respective professions. In the earlier film the brutality literally breaks Mickey Rourke's heart, in Black Swan it becomes a catalyst for Nina's horrific descent into psychosis.

Ballet and madness have long had a peculiar synergy; after all Nijinsky's diaries remain one of the definitive first-hand accounts of schizophrenia. The duality of physical discipline with inner turmoil is a potent brew and you wonder whether the theme precipitated the subject matter. Either way the grandiose absurdity of the final act, as Mina plunges into a breakdown on the opening night, is one of the most remarkable sequences attempted by a Hollywood film in recent years.

For some it will be a leap too far, but if Scorsese can get away with an affectionate nod to old school psychodrama in Shutter Island I see no reason why Aronofsky's film should be treated any differently. If nothing else he must be praised for an inspired selection of actresses. Portman delivers her best performance to date in a tailor-made part, but Kunis and Hershey are equally impressive and credit to Winona Ryder for embracing the cruel irony of her role.

If there's a major failing it's that the trickery and blurring of perception disengages us from much feeling of sympathy for the heroine, leaving the ending bereft of true pathos. Not quite a classic but there's still plenty to admire.


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