Lost on pointe
It is set in the rarefied world of ballet. But those expecting an ode to the wonders of the dance form along the lines of Red Shoes (1948) or even the relatively more recent The Turning Point are likely to be disappointed.
The fifth feature by Darren Aronofsky —his previous films, including The Wrestler never made it to our multiplexes — is a psychological thriller that delves into a state of mind where a little too much is going on.
A promising ballerina (Portman) with a New York Company is unexpectedly promoted to lead dancer in a new production of “Swan Lake”. As she strives to realise her lifelong ambition, she becomes ensnared in an out-of-control spiral.
Under extreme pressure to perform her pointe work to perfection, the repressed young girl sheds her inhibitions in a series of hallucinatory nightmares.
The competitive milieu and tumultuous personalities such as a rival new dancer (Mila Kunis, suitably sensuous) are well-etched. But there are hardly any surprises from a storytelling perspective. Aronofsky merely tries to whip up excitement through the incessantly swirling camerawork and rapid inter-cutting. Any sense of the beauty of ballet itself is lacking.
A couple of scenes involving a suicidal former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder, wasted) are redundant, Vincent Cassel is impressive in the role of the company’s manipulative director. Old-timer Barbara Hershey is inept, though, in the ill-conceived role of a domineering mother. Ultimately, Black Swan is all about Natalie Portman.
Without her startling, Oscar-worthy performance, the film would be just another pretentious, if snazzily-executed horror-fantasy.