Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo 16 cert, gen release, 107 min
Darren Aronofsky choreographs a jaw-dropping art-house horror film, writes DONALD CLARKE
BALLET IS dreary bourgeois comfort food. Attended solely by lazy rich people, it offers flouncy escape from the cold realities of contemporary class warfare. It’s all prancing swans, frolicking princes and implausibly animated nut- cracking paraphernalia.
Hang on. Ballet is also, famously, one of the most demanding art forms ever conceived. A kind of aesthetically inclined torture, it asks its participants to knot muscles and bruise bones in the pursuit of impossible grace. Heck, in Soviet Russia it stood as the ultimate expression of collectivist creativity. It also sends people barmy.
It hardly needs to be said that Darren Aronofsky, director of The Wrestlerand Requiem for a Dream, inclines towards the latter interpretation in his emotionally hyper-charged, invigoratingly gothic study of a young woman coping badly with elevation to the discipline’s first rank.
Like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, around which the story hangs, Black Swanrevels in thematic and narrative complements. The protagonist is nervy, infantalised and inhibited. Her main rival is promiscuous, confident and wildly gregarious. A domineering mother urges withdrawal from the hubbub. An equally unyielding choreographer demands that she embrace sensuality.
Aronofsky has, however, no time for misconceptions about the tweeness of ballet. Black Swanis unapologetic in its efforts to present the form as an arena of creative agony. Some may find the end result a tad overheated, but, as arthouse horror films go, it has no equals in the recent canon. It will be much copied.
In a performance that combines the jitteriness of a cold Chihuahua with the desperation of a Chekhovian Cinderella, Natalie Portman excels as Nina, an up-and-coming dancer, who, to her delight and surprise, secures the role of the Swan Queen in an earthy production of Swan Lake. Her anxiety is heightened by awareness that the role was expected to go the way of the company’s charismatic, but aging and flinty, prima ballerina (an almost embarrassingly well-cast Winona Ryder).
Everywhere she looks, the paranoid dancer spies enemies and rivals. Her oppressive, mad-eyed mother – granted demonic presence by an unrestrained Barbara Hershey – works hard at holding back the advance of adulthood. Nina’s bedroom features a sinister cabal of threateningly unthreatening cuddly toys and dead-faced dollies. The company’s main choreographer (a coasting Vincent Cassel), whose hands occasionally wander where hands shouldn’t, attempts to bully her out of her arrested development by urging off-duty carnality.
At first Nina is horribly suspicious of Lily (Mila Kunis), the lookalike who becomes her understudy. After all, she is everything that Nina is not: a libertine, a joker, an adult. But gradually she allows herself to be led astray and, after drinks and fumblings, finds her psyche blending with that of the more confident challenger.
Always an enthusiast for obsessive mania, Aronofsky invites the visuals to enhance the growing feeling of dread. In The Wrestler, by shooting from behind the protagonist’s head (much in the style of the Dardennes Brothers), he invited a degree of empathy; here the trailing camera suggests the presence of an unseen but ever watchful controlling presence.
What we end up with is an unrelenting, grimly beautiful study of a decaying brain. The subject matter and the concerns with obsession will inevitably make viewers think of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, but a more striking model is Roman Polanski’s peerless Repulsion. A glance at that film should dispel concerns that Black Swanis too extreme in its characterisation. As in Repulsion, the world we see is, surely, the world as seen by the increasingly fractured heroine. (At least one character might, you feel, be a figment of Nina’s imagination.)
Some top dancers have already scowled at the standard of Portman’s twirls and leaps. Psychiatric professionals may be uneasy at the careering momentum of Nina’s colourful decline. Never mind. Aronofsky has done an extraordinary job of imagining an alternative universe and of creating characters who seem nervously at home in his slippery, wilfully unreal Nowhere. Come to think of it, one could argue that Tchaikovsky did something very similar.