Black Swan – requiem for a dancer

Ballet has always been a loaded subject, suspended uncomfortably between art and masochism, between the divine and the pathological. But Black Swan transcends ballet, playing more like the dark existential crisis of Dr Jekyl and Hyde than the fairytale of Swan Lake, around which it is written.

Darren Aronofsky has always been drawn to the obsessive, self-destructive corner of human nature. His heroes are junkies, math geniuses and grieving scientists – all of them teetering on the edge of sanity. But never has he had a better subject than Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) – a delicate, emotionally neutered ballerina approaching the end of her career.

Aronofsky is a master of claustrophobic first person perspective. From the moment we meet Nina we are sucked into her world, floating behind her as she jitters and frets her way through the world. We cannot escape her growing anxiety any more than she can.

But it’s when Nina finally gets her big break – a leading role in a new production of Swan Lake – that the torture really starts. Obsessed with perfection, terrified of injury and visited by horrific visions of an evil twin, she is constantly on the edge of complete emotional breakdown.

It doesn’t help that every other major character in the film, from the predatory dilettante of a director (Vincent Cassel in creepy, superb form) to the damaged, possessive mother (a signature Barbara Hershey role) has their claws deep in her, sucking at her life force.

Lily, played with impish delight by Mila Kunis, is Nina’s rival and counterpoint: sensuous, dusky, uninhibited. She smokes, takes drugs and talks with obvious relish about “sucking cock”. Nina is simultaneously horrified, fascinated and jealous. The few glimpses we see of Nina’s dark side – masturbating wildly on her bed, fantasizing about lesbian sex – suggest that she longs to be like Lily.

Although many of the dance scenes are beautifully shot, there’s a curious detachment, an anatomical fascination that is often disturbing. Aronofsky lingers over the unpleasant physical reality of the dancers – their ruined feet, their torn muscles – as though picking at a scab.

Nina is more like a specimen than a character – a rare butterfly that Aronofsky has pinned down for leisurely dissection. Beneath her facade of the prima ballerina, Nina is unravelling – scratching herself raw, leaking blood and shedding skin. By the middle of the film this physicality becomes utterly surreal – she begins sprouting phantom feathers and limbs.

There’s a touch of the terminally ill in Portman’s appearance. Shrunk down to an alarming weight, she is all angles and sinew, her delicate neck constantly taut as though it was being stretched from above. But it’s her emotional intensity and range that makes the performance so mesmerising.

It’s an unlikeable role – a simpering wreck of a girl crushing her life’s dream in the desperation of her grip – but Portman holds our attention throughout, if not our symphathy. That’s no easy feat considering Aronofsky’s penchant for following a spiral relentlessly to its nadir. For all his genius he tends to bludgeon his point into his audience. By the end we are begging for her release – holding our breaths that she might somehow escape the madness that is swallowing her whole.

Portman has a real chance at winning the Oscar, not least because the Academy has always had a soft spot for people who play the mentally ill or challenged. It’s like a macabre reversal of the old murder defense: “Winner by reason of mental disease or defect.” The only thing they like more is a screen goddess who puts on the ugly – just ask Charlize Theron.

Many people will hate this film, just as they hate the rest of Aronofsky’s work. His stylised aesthetic and taste for gristle do not make for comfortable viewing. There’s nothing pretty about Black Swan, and not much that would be considered conventionally enjoyable.

Still, it has the fascinating, morbid attraction of a watching an autopsy performed live. It’s beautiful in the same way as a nightmare is beautiful – unrelenting, inescapable, all-encompassing.

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