From its many striking and beautiful poster designs to its tantalising trailer, Darren Aronofsky‘s retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has promised something cinematically special. With an audacious director and excellent cast, hype and anticipation has been very high. Thankfully Black Swan is one of those rare films where the build-up translates and all the potential pays off on screen.
Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman) a perfectionist ballerina at a prestigious New York ballet company. Nina’s hard work looks set to pay off when the director (Vincent Cassel, Eastern Promises) announces that he is casting a new lead in the production of Swan Lake. While Nina is perfect for the white swan role, the lead is required to play both the white and black swan and a new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) who is a more sensual and free-spirited performer, becomes her rival. Adding to Nina’s professional stress, she also has to cope with the stage-mum from hell (Barbara Hershey, Lantana) who infantilizes her.
Those expecting some sort of high art may be surprised by Black Swan‘s melodrama. Dark and tense, this film is on one hand a psychological drama and on the other a pulse-racing thriller. The ballet world makes a great home for this genre, with its intensity, professional rivalries and the abundance of mirrored rooms. But Black Swan isn’t really about ballet at all. That isn’t to say that this aspect of the film is slapdash; Portman and Kunis spent months in preparation for their roles, finely tuning their bodies so they could resemble the real thing. British newspaper The Guardian recently ran an article where professional dancers gave their verdict on the film’s authenticity. Someone really missed the point here- if you want reality watch the beautiful documentary La Danse. Black Swan is exaggeration, fantasy and most of all make believe at its most exciting- it is not an exercise to see whether a Hollywood actress can be turned into a professional ballerina in nine months.
Much had been made of Portman’s exceptional performance, however there are three very strong female performances that guide this film. Kunis’ rebel ballerina and Hershey’s overbearing mother are just as vital to the film’s success. French actor Cassel is sadly allowed to completely overact his part as the game playing ballet director. While his villainous isn’t out of place in this film, an actor of his calibre could have probably taken the role to a more interesting and original place.
With more than touches of early Polanski and Cronenberg films, Black Swan explores the the darker recesses of ambition and narcissism, using the conventions of thriller and horror films. The film is beautiful and lyrical at times before switching to the full power of the melodrama, this duality is definitely something to be appreciated.
Black Swan is released in Australia January 20th
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied