‘Black Swan’ gives us a harried, weepy Natalie Portman as Nina, a delicate, overly mothered dancer with the New York City Ballet who cracks up ten times over when she lands the dual roles of the White and Black Swans, Odette and Odile, in a production of ‘Swan Lake’. Realism barely gets a look in as Aronofsky and his team go hell-for-leather in reflecting this young woman’s fractured mental state – and the ballet’s own story and themes – in everything from an invasive, swirling photographic style to the monochrome production design of the office and apartment of her mentor and director, Thomas (pronounced the French way and played by Vincent Cassel), a man as stereotypically ‘European’ as Hercule Poirot. A fan of turtlenecks and indoor scarves, he’s the sort of guy who asks his protegées to masturbate, just to explore their devilish sides.
Or does he? It’s rarely clear what’s real or not in ‘Black Swan’. Aronofsky’s approach to psychological drama – to making real the horrors of the mind – makes the likes of Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘Repulsion’ look very timid. He doesn’t go for a gradual reveal of insanity. Instead, right from the off, we see Nina tearing off impossible amounts of skin from her fingers and hear awful cracks and snaps as she exercises her feet. From there, all Aronofsky can do is throw taste and subtlety to the wind.
The body horror increases: later, we see Nina’s legs bending and snapping, just as she hallucinates while looking at the walls of the flat she shares with her ultra-protective mother, played as a witch by Barbara Hershey. Her other nemeses are a demonic, newly retired dancer (Winona Ryder) and a pretty new colleague (Mila Kunis). Our view of both is entirely distorted by Nina’s breakdown as she struggles to play both swans and defy Thomas’s concerns that she’s too pure to play the more evil role.
The film’s endless pulp elements (erotica, stabbing, drugs, blood, strangling…) are tempered by the beauty of the story’s context – the music, dancing, costumes – and the film’s ballsy momentum. Yet there’s no escaping that this is high-class trash, however enjoyable. Aronofsky has taken a disturbed psychological state – the neuroses of a fragile artist – and flung it into lurid territory. He’s more concerned with expressing Nina’s madness and reflecting it (and, boy, he likes mirrors) in the world about her than in making any sense of her character or the life of a dancer. But he whips up such an orgy of fun in the process that it’s hard not to tear off your clothes and dive in.