Black Swanby Kavish Chetty / 04.02.2011
Black Swan is an orchestral scream of a film. It begins with the idea of a double: a young ballerina (working for a company that is reimagining a production of Swan Lake for the 21st century) struggling with her personality, and starting to encounter visions of herself outside her own body. This exhumes easily the whole host of issues that usually accompany the double in our literature our cinema: face-offs between black and white, purity and passion, innocence and sensuality; also internal conflicts when repressed desires slowly start to leak out of the unconscious and form themselves outside the body; and always a confrontation with the ‘shadow’, that frightening silhouette of our personalities that we try to keep shut up and out of sight. Black Swan might be rather uninventive in all the ways it approaches these things, but the furiously melodramatic and mysterious way in which it dramatises this conflict makes it a compelling piece of cinema.
With all its ballet focus, Black Swan can’t help a certain melodrama – for example, its soundtrack is a grand gesture of seething violins and terrifying thrashes of cello. Natalie Portman in the lead role is also something more than overstated – perfectly fragile and virgin, she’s the blankest slate on which to spill the blackest ink. But all of this taste for high drama is part of the captivating magic of the film. It’s surreal, dark, moody, tortured, absurd, frightening – and, obviously, brilliant (I won’t be surprised if that string of superlatives coaxes out the strongest of venom from our vicious comment-thread regulars).
Like his previous film, The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s new one is about testing the limits of a profession. The Wrestler was tragic and placed its protagonist in the centre of a series of familial and economic woes (and also explored the sell-by-date of his career, masculinity and aging). Black Swan turns its attention inward to a greater extent. Its tortures are interior horrors rather than tragedies.
The limits of this particular profession – that of the ballerina – are played out by Portman. She appears to be unspoiled as a pre-Mxit-era pubescent and has devoted her life to ballet. Her mother, a broody and authoritative woman, is obviously using her as some kind of surrogate to achieve the triumphs in ballet that she never did, and thereby still the sense of failure that seeps in with mid-life crisis. Portman has to play both swans in her director’s transformative take on the classic ballet, but obviously, in order to do that, she needs to embrace a darker aspect of her being. The white swan she can do brilliantly: her life is all about technique and poise. She’s innocent, shy and graceful. But to properly play the black swan, she needs to release her tightened muscles and surrender herself to more primal passions. Her movements need to become untethered and animated by sensuality.
The film is predictable in the sense that it sketches out its own path very boldly at the beginning. Portman is somehow going to transfigure herself, exhume the darkness that’s inside her somewhere. We know it’s there, because the more innocent or virgin a person appears to us, the stronger and more devilish the corresponding mechanisms of their repression are. We also know this because mirrors are everywhere in the film, and Portman begins to see creepy iterations of her own body stalking her throughout the city at night. Lastly, it’s apparent because a new ballerina has joined the troupe – and she is everything that Portman is not: sexual, youthful, capricious. The perfect candidate to project onto, and perfect candidate to externalise the tension between the chaotic and the ordered.
Still, Aronofsky has mastered a mode of cinema that brings every constituent element together in a triumphal exhibition. The sound is chilling, the acting is magnificent, the cinematography is blackly gorgeous. The Cronenberg-esque body-horror elements – the self fighting with the self – are artfully handled. Although it relies on a few American cheap scares, the overall tone of the horror is perhaps something closer to the Japanese style. It is a superbly tense and charismatic movie.