Black Swan

Dancer in the dark

A guest post by the screenwriter Joseph D Meegan:

Darren Aronofsky serves up a highly enjoyable slice of melodrama in Black Swan, if you’re willing to wait.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a New York ballet dancer giving everything in her pursuit of her dream. So far so Flashdance. The lead role in a daring new production of Swan Lake is up for grabs, with one dancer being asked to portray both the good White Swan and the evil Black Swan. As Nina nears her goal, pirouetting until she bleeds, she starts seeing frightening things in mirrors and sensing frightening motives in her fellow dancers.

There is a dark slant to proceedings; a truly uncomfortable sound mix which makes you squirm with every slice and snap; cinematography which sets dashes of colour against gloriously stark black and white backgrounds, and a soundtrack of high drama borrowed from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Barbara Hershey is excellent as Nina’s unhinged mother Erica, a stage-mum to wither all stage-mums, creeping into her daughter’s room or forcing cake on her. At one point she sits painting and weeping. She’s definitely mad. Then there is the ever-watchable Vincent Cassel as Thomas, the genius director of the ballet who brings freedom to Nina’s dancing. He’s also a bit mad, but it’s part of his genius, so we forgive him.

A mood of impending unpleasantness firmly established, Aronofsky lingers on success and madness as possible outcomes of obsession, the refrain being that we should embrace both light and dark elements of ourselves.

Here Aronofsky lingers a little too long. Portman’s character doesn’t seem to develop and her binary emotions (sad, mad) become tiresome. There is a point from about an hour in when the sight of another mirror on screen becomes nauseating. You can be fairly confident she won’t see her actual reflection. Again. There is also an incongruous use of cheap shocks to keep us interested, Vincent Cassel has to deliver a couple of cringe-worthy lines, and a scene in which the masturbating Nina is surprised by her sleeping mother is funnier than was probably intended. This film has faults.

But then comes the final act, a wonderfully theatrical 20-minute melodrama full of twists and turns, triumph and tragedy, as Nina finally takes to the stage to perform. To say much more might spoil it, but it is really for this sequence that the film is worth seeing. The action accelerates, the musical score is ratcheted all the way up, and the monochrome sets and costumes are suddenly vibrant. While the end doesn’t quite justify its overlong, underdeveloped build-up, it does wonders for audience goodwill. It also makes you want to watch real ballet, with a vague sense that you could now spot emotional nuances in a plié.

Like any good melodrama Black Swan is ultimately silly, but you can’t help feeling delighted that Aronofsky pulled it off.

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2 Responses to Black Swan

  1. JamieR says:

    I agreed with your faults – and I suppose they had stronger influence on how I received the film because by the time we’d reached the roller-coaster climax, it had lost me and I just found everything funny.

    Another problem was Portman, whose transformation didn’t convince me despite Aronofsky (impressively) pulling out all the stops to help her in the ways you describe. Turns out Vincent Cassel’s criticisms were right.

  2. JohnnyEvo says:

    I hate the whole concept behind this film. I would rather eat my own lips than watch it.

    Jamie would never have been so lenient on this nonsense.

    Black Swan in 5 words:

    Shit, ballet, masturbation, bonkers, shit.

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