Black Swan is the most visceral cinematic experience I’ve had since maybe Raging Bull. So, it’s about ballet? So what. Ballet is merely the structure on which this tragedy about mental breakdown, maybe schizophrenia is played out.
Using the metaphor of black and white (the swans) to portray, good and evil, right and wrong, strength and weakness director Darren Aranofski paints a picture of what’s going on in the head of Natalie Portman as she gradually falls apart under the pressure of preparing to dance Swan Lake; with a backdrop of a doubtful choreographer, an ambitious understudy, a jealous mother and a fallen Prima ballerina; all exerting pressure of one sort or another on the poor little virgin that is Portman.
Portman delivers a tour de force (Oscar certainty) performance as she wrestles with the devils in her mind and tries to prove all the doubters wrong. It’s a remarkable performance in so many ways, so vulnerable (which could just have been fey) and yet so strong. Surely the Academy can look no further.
But the real star of the show – notwithstanding powerhouse performances from Barbara Hershey (wonderful as the mother), Winona Ryder in a Mommie Dearest descent into her own madness, Vincent Cassel (as the unforgiving choreographer and philanderer) and Mila Kunis as the threat from the Corps de Ballet – is director Darren Aronofsky. My God, another huge contender for Academy recognition. His direction of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler was eye opening, but this moves him onto yet another level. He is garnering a reputation for bringing mental instability to the screen in a way that is eye opening and shocking.
And that’s another thing about this move, it’s a quite thrilling shockfest. There’s a bunch of “gotcha” moments that have you ducking for cover (quite a few shreiks were let out in our relatively small audience) as he makes the most of the ability to confuse and wrongfoot his audience.
And then there’s the sex. I’ll not go into detail here, but it is a central motif of the film (starting from the premise that Portman is a 24 year old virgin) and is certainly worthy of debate, but I don’t want to spoil it for you here.
All I’ll say is that sitting next to my 16 year old daughter as it played out made for a degree of discomfort!
All in all this is a truly outstanding piece of film-making. In Darren Aronofsky we have one of America’s next great directors really cementing his claims for greatness and Natalie Portman never has, and never will, have a part this great again.
Do NOT wait for the DVD, it will not be the same.