Black Swan has a lot going for it: Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky, dope early Soviet era inspired posters, Tchaikovsky. But like someone on a blind date I went in with restrained expectations, hoping for the best but worried about being let down. Where to begin? It’s as if Aronofsky sat me down and said: “What terrifies you the most? Doppelgängers? Hitchcockian fixations on buns? A mother to rival Norma Bates? Hangnails?” Aronofsky opens a world of beautiful horror and plunges you into a disturbed psyche that is rarely captured on screen. Black Swan is a portrait of madness, perfection, beauty, sexuality, art. Filled with binary extremes, both in terms of narrative and visuals, by the time the movie ends you are so worn out you feel like you’ve danced Odile’s 32 fouettés. But Black Swan isn’t about ballet (like La Danse) or even dancers (like, and I’m going here, Center Stage), it’s about Nina (Natalie Portman).
The plot is simple: Nina is cast as the Swan Queen (the ballet equivalent to winning the Super Bowl) but as her debut approaches she increasingly loses control. What’s so wonderful terrifying about Black Swan is that in this process the audience does too. By shooting with a hand held camera Aronofsky can insert it into the centre of Nina’s world, collapsing the audience’s and her perspective. This leaves us, like Nina, wondering what is happening. We also lose sense of time, as Nina’s world is almost exclusively based in her mother’s seemingly windowless Upper West apartment and the bowels of the Lincoln Center. We rarely see the light of day and become temporally dislocated, which only adds to the overall chaos of Nina’s mind and our perception of her.
Some might be inclined to roll their eyes at the bun-head caricature that Nina’s first embodies, with her pink wardrobe and bad tween jewelry. But this isn’t type casting. Nina is meant to be the “sweet girl” in this grim fable as Black Swan is Swan Lake: Black vs White, Good vs Evil – but there’s no Ying and Yang here. One has to win. And without a chainsaw in sight they manage to violently duel. While I imagine having your head locked in a backwards bear trap is less than ideal, Black Swan‘s horror lies in it’s simplicity and self-affliction. Aronofsky and Portman manage to capture both the beauty and brutality of ballet, from the glamour of performance to the backstage cracking toenails and bones. This reality of bodies under strain and their fragility is where the gruesome horror beings but it slowly builds, becoming painfully unwatchable (trust, you’ll never look at filing your nails the same way again).
As a blind date Black Swan didn’t let me down. It’s fascinating, beautiful and deserves more than one viewing. Of course, the irony is that watching it again would be no easy task. It’s hard to watch but equally difficult to look away.