Fantastically deranged at all times, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psycho-melodrama is a glittering, crackling, outrageously pickable scab of a film. At its centre is young ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She is beautiful, vulnerable, sexually naïve and susceptible to mental illness. To play the role of a lifetime, Nina must delve deep into her own dark side. As her hallucinations and anxiety attacks escalate in tandem with her progress in rehearsal, artistic breakthrough fuses with nervous breakdown.
This is a movie about fear of penetration, fear of your body, fear of being supplanted in the affections of a powerful man, love of perfection, love of dance, and perhaps most importantly of all, passionate and overwhelming hatred of your mother.
We join the story as the ballet company is about to dispense with its bitter has-been star (and wrecked gamine) Beth Macintyre: the casting of Winona Ryder is sadistically judged. The company’s exacting director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is looking for someone new to play the lead in Swan Lake. His hooded eye settles on tremulous Nina.
But he warns her that the biggest challenge will be playing the character’s evil twin, the ‘Black Swan’. She has to find the darker, more sensual side of herself. Thomas invites Nina back to his apartment for intimate drinks. To develop the role, he instructs her to go home and touch herself. Touching Thomas also appears to be on the agenda.
In addition, Thomas encourages Nina to admire the company’s new ballerina: funky free spirit and Olympic-standard minx Lily (Mila Kunis), who helps unlock Nina’s life-force with seductive overtures of friendship, and more. But does Lily simply want to steal Nina’s role? As Nina’s anxiety intensifies, she is worried about a weird feathery skin-rash and becomes convinced that her reflection in the mirror continues to stare at her after she has turned away.
As a study of female breakdown, Black Swan is the best thing since Polanski’s Repulsion. But, in fact, with its creepy Manhattan interiors, its looming, close-up camera movements, and its encircling conspiracy of evil, it looks more like Rosemary’s Baby.
Aronofsky likes to play that Swan Lake theme loud. He’s probably right to do so. Tchaikovsky’s rich, gloriously direct music needs to be punched over, and punched over it is. Motörhead could not have played the Swan Lake theme any louder than this. I left the cinema with blood trickling from my ears. Black Swan is ionospherically over the top, sensual, quite mad and often really scary.
*This is the first of a special 2011 Academy Awards series that will be published till Saturday, February 26.