Sunday 23 January 2011


Out now in cinemas is the new film by Darren Aronofsky.
Read my review, next...

After winning the dual role of Odile and Odette in a revival of Swan Lake, Nina (Natalie Portman) must draw on her personal demons to fully inhabit the role of Odile, the Black Swan. With the help of her colleague Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina starts to learn how to let herself be affected by the role, putting aside her virginal and pure sensibilities and embracing the darkness that lay buried deep within.

Darren Aronofsky's follow up to The Wrestler is many things. A tense and compelling drama about ambition; a study of repressed sexuality; a body horror to rival the work of David Cronenberg; and an enveloping journey into a waking psychological nightmare that leaves a lasting effect on the viewer. It's also a masterpiece of modern cinema that will be studied and deconstructed for years.

Nina is an accomplished dancer, and one who displays all of the qualities that are needed to play the Swan Queen. Natalie Portman in the main role has a believable air of fragility to her, with her reduced, ballet appropriate frame accentuating her character's vulnerabilities and insecurities. On the other side of the spectrum is Mila Kunis' Lily, completely at ease with her frank sexuality and able to use the medium of dance to come alive. She is everything the Black Swan should be, and what Nina desires to be.

As the ballet director, Vincent Cassel has for the most part the only male speaking role, and he exudes masculinity throughout every scene with his dancers. There's an abundance of sexual chemistry and tension between the three lead roles, and the film makes sure to exploit this as often as possible. Barbara Hershey appears in a supporting role as Nina's troubled mother, and (although driven by different forces) was reminiscent of the mother played by Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream, smiling through the pain for as long as she can.

Juggling the character traits of insanity and duality, Natalie Portman deserves all of the plaudits she's receiving for her role, and Cassel and Hershey should be commended for their efforts too. Mila Kunis is not an actor I'd usually associate with dramatic roles, but she acquits herself admirably here. With the raised profile this role has given her, I expect we'll see her in more high quality fare in the future.

The film should be applauded for its technical achievements too. Matthew Libatique's dizzying handheld camerawork never allows us to leave Nina's side for one moment, and delights in playing tricks of the eye. The black against white costuming may seem to be making too obvious a statement at first, but it does work with the characters' personas. It's also a fantastic achievement in sound design, with the tenser scenes augmented by an oft-repeated short, sharp intake of breath. It's a haunting effect that along Nina's journey to becoming the Black Swan, starts to gain a rhythmic prominence.

At first Black Swan appears to be signposting its themes a little too blatantly, and under the direction of a lesser individual than Aronofsky could easily have become a crass semiotic and textual nightmare. With him at the helm though, it develops into an assured collection of haunting visions, mirrored beauty and captivating dance.

Aronofsky has stated that, being another film about performance to the masses, he sees Black Swan as a kindred spirit to The Wrestler. That's an accurate comparison, but with the added elements of American Psycho and All About Eve is a much richer experience than The Wrestler. In fact, in a career defined by complex and haunting films, Black Swan is Aronofsky's best yet, and the first truly fantastic film I've seen in 2011.


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