Black Swan is something of an 'event' film. It has been stirring debate ever since it opened the Venice Film Festival, and is something of a watershed for director Darren Aronofsky: his previous film, The Wrestler manifested the promise shown in his earlier films (particularly the unforgettable, relentless and undercooked Requiem For A Dream) and consequently he has moved from 'cult director' to 'major director'.
The story is fairly straightforward: a renowned NYC ballet company is planning a production of Swan Lake; following the retirement of the aging star (played with psychopathic gusto by Winona Ryder) a new lead is to be cast. Perfectionist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, the film's star) is among the frontrunners but remains to convince the tyrannical director (Vincent Cassell) that she is able to portray not just the meticulous 'good' white swan but also the reckless 'bad' black swan. Nina, in striving to achieve this (and under pressure from both her unbalanced, pushy mother (Barbara Hershey), and carefree rival/friend Lily, played by Mila Kunis) begins to suffer psychological breakdown and complex, vivid and often lengthy hallucinations.
Aronofsky has decided to play this story as a pyschological horror. As such there are a number of directorial touchstones - Hitchcock, Cronenberg, Lynch and especially Polanski loom large. Dario Argento has an enormous influence on the scares and there are echoes too of Michael Hanekes' Piano Teacher - another film about obsessive perfection and dysfunctional mothers. And I suspect Aronofsky has been disingenuous regarding the chief cinematic exposition of ballet, Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes, claiming only to have seen it for the first time while part way through filming.
It is a claustrophobic film - Portman, who the audience is 'with' for most of the film, is shot uncomfortably close, and the palette is oppressively grey until the blood begins to flow. It is also so straight-faced and histrionic as to be unintentionally comical at times; Kunis, supposedly a sensual counterpoint to Portman's cold perfectionism, ends up more as the ego, caught between Portman's warring id and superego and there is not nearly enough of her to ground the film and allow us to feel the madness, rather than simply witness it (and be warned - the theme of duality is thoroughly sledgehammered home; to paraphrase wise Ralph Wiggum, "the mirror symbolises obviousness!").
The special effects, particularly the 'plucked goose skin' (you'll recognise what I mean when you see it) are clever and seamless, with plenty of Fight Club-esque hints at the madness to come. Some of the frights are a little cheap though: "Crash-zoom-plus-orchestra-hit" does have its place, but alongside the more elegant and inventive effects they tend to jar rather than thrill.
Critics have claimed Black Swan as companion piece to The Wrestler, a notion which has been cagily endorsed by Aronofsky himself. I agree: both films deal with the psychological impact of over-stretching the body in pursuit of glory and perfection. However, I enjoyed that earlier film far more - it has heart, and a story worth telling, not to mention career-best performances from Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.
That's not to take anything away from Portman, whose achievement as an actor, at least in terms of the physicality of the role, outshines Aronofsky's achievement as director. Portman is not the standout though (and nor is Cassel, who serves up a ripe slice of ham as the devilish director, exercising a creepy droit de professuer over his favoured students). No, it's Barbara Hershey as the knife-edge mother, taking a fairly stock character - the parent offsetting their failed ambitions on the child - and turning her into one of cinema's great sinister mothers.
If you've skipped to the bottom of the review you might be wondering how these patches of high praise haven't translated into high marks. That's because despite the innovative effects, the great performances and (it almost goes without saying) the magnificent score, the film just doesn't hold together. Aronofsky I feel is hiding his true vocation in melodrama (in the best possible sense) behind a bunch of tortuous psychosexualisms, some sub-Borgesian thematics and an intense seriousness. He is still one of the better directors currently working, but he is striving for the mastery - even understanding - of his own vision. In the end the only real question asked by Black Swan is: do we need an upmarket Dario Argento? I'll leave that one up to you.
I watched this at the rather incongruous time of 10.30 in the morning. The theatre was still fairly busy nonetheless; the largely female audience tending to middle-age and upward. Brilliantly, there were no ads, only trailers - although the painfully unfunny Orange spot remained. Latecomers be warned - you won't have the usual twenty minutes grace before the stated start time and the actual beginning of the film itself.