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Oh, Darren Aronofsky, you do my head in.  The cat from Brooklyn behind such brain bending fare as Pi {1998}, Requiem for a Dream {2000} and The Fountain {2006} returns from the fairly sedate, sentimental straight storytelling of The Wrestler {2008} to once again screw with my synapses with his latest offering Black Swan.  Black Swan is a complete and utter mind trip about the obsessive search for perfection that could easily be described as Kafka for girls.

So many little girls grow up with the desire to be a pretty, pretty ballerina and only a few have the drive and talent to actually become one.  For most, ballet dancers represent ultimate grace, delicacy and feminine beauty with their tiaras and fluffy tutus.  Black Swan opens with the tortuous rigors of ballet practice, wherein one must balance the entire weight of their body on the very tips of their toes, which are further balanced on top of a small wooden block encased in a silk slipper.  This is how we find Nina, a young woman who has spent practically every moment of her life en pointe, unquestioning whether her dream of terpsichorean excellence belongs to her mother who also did time in the ballet corps, or herself.  All she knows is that with her company’s new production of Swan Lake, she wants the lead.  However, technically strong Nina ‘s skills may be, it’s not enough for her demanding director, Thomas who wants a dancer who can tap into their darkest id to portray the Black Swan, the evil alter ego of the Swan Queen.  Nina simply can’t connect to the sensuality needed for the role, having lived a life with a single purpose and no outside influences allowed in by her mother’s insurmountable barricades.  Nina’s panic at losing the role of a lifetime deepens when a stringer is brought in ostensibly to play the part.  Lily is everything Nina is not; wild, loose and sexy, a girl whose only reservations are at her favourite restaurant.  Nina is pulled by Lily’s siren-like charm, defying her mother for the first time and living like a young woman in the big city might; clumsily picking up guys in clubs, dancing up a storm and thanks to Nina, taking her first narcotic.  The mind-altering substances open up worlds of carnality to the frozen asset and the ice princess begins to melt with startling results, including her first rages when she realises that her new BFF might not be the pal she portrays herself to be.  The small flares of temper and passion we’d seen starting to spark -- Nina’s pointed reaction to Thomas’ sleazy come-ons, her petty theft from the former prima ballerina of the company who’s been used up and acrimoniously kicked out, plummeting as Nina’s star begins to rise -- threaten to burst into flame.  While all this is going on, Nina is unsettled by strange marks on her skin that force the already pent-up girl to cover up even more and surely the sight of a black-clad lookalike turning up wherever she goes could be put down to exhaustion and stress?  Everything comes to a head on the night of the big production and sabotage is everywhere Nina looks; at home with dear old mom and backstage with Lily already in her costume.  Nina’s not going to give up so easily, is she?  After all, she wants to be perfect.

Man, was this a head trip.  I left the cinema completely haunted and thrilled by what I’d seen.  Filmed in grainy, unforgiving, documentary style, Black Swan’s exploration into Nina’s crumbling psyche is completely enthralling.  It’s a fall down a rabbit hole with no white rabbit to lead the way, only a cruel, voracious fowl that wants everything Nina is.  Director Aronofsky’s subtle use of special effects to mark Nina’s loosening grip on reality is brilliantly employed, increasing as her distress grows, until the hallucinations become the stuff of living nightmares.  Nina’s instructions to give herself over to the role that is all base instincts and sexuality are in complete conflict with the sedate, obedient, almost personality-free cipher.  Her identification with the character forces changes long overdue in every aspect in her life, which up until then included her mother clipping her fingernails for her and keeping the locks off Nina’s bedroom door.  Erica, Nina’s retired ballerina mom is the stuff of Greek tragedies; a ball of passive-aggression and domination, smothering her child with all her vicarious expectations while blaming Nina’s conception for her forced retirement – never mind that the lady was pushing thirty and never played a lead.  Nina’s mother is the most saccharinely creepy example of twisted maternal love since Piper Laurie as Mrs. White in Carrie {1976}.  I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to hear mom shout “They’re all gonna laugh at you” in the face of her daughter’s defiance.

The performances are fantastic all around.  Natalie Portman digs deeps for the meek, tightly-wound bundle of insecurities that is Nina.  The actress does her own choreography, including dancing en pointe (on the tip of the toes), which is excruciating for anyone who hasn’t trained for years to do it.  Pale and haggard looking through the entire film, one gets from the outset that Nina’s life is one of inner torture both in her ickily unprivate home life and her career pursuit of the perfection she so craves.  Everything about Nina is judged and found wanting; she’s not sexy enough, she’s not strong enough, and all these flaws are exposed before the catty corps who never welcome her.  She’s surrounded by forces of nature on every side, including her ballet master played by a nicely oozing Balachine-esque Vincent Cassel, letting his sleaze flag fly, her anaconda of a mom, played by an imposing and terrifying Barbara Hershey, and Mila Kunis as the new wild child Lily, who savagely rips into life like it’s her last day on earth, taking on all comers onstage and off.  There’s a way too small cameo by Winona Ryder as the prima donna nudged none too gently into retirement who has a few words of advice for Nina.  Ryder chews into those few moments with relish, at one point looking like a cross between Dynasty–era Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf {1966} playing her scenes with a combination of both ladies’ onscreen venom.  There is a delicious edge of Grand Guignol as Aronofsky elegantly flirts with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-style campiness, measuring how far he can take the film over the top before pulling the reins in at exactly the right time.

Spellbinding this is, and absolutely unforgettable.  The film is photographed beautifully, making the minimalist interiors of the ballet rehearsals look simultaneously stark and lush and the claustrophobia of Nina’s infantile bedroom becomes nauseating in its cloyingness.  Darren Aronofsky has created a fairy tale nightmare for girls that’s equal parts Brothers Grimm and David Lynch.  Mixed with his own astute way around a complex, intelligent script and his ability to get wonderful performances out of a cast willing to give their all, Black Swan is a surrealist masterpiece.

Extremely well done, this.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 1st, 2010

 

 

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