With a mesmerising performance from Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is entirely gripping in its pas-de-deux of sensuality and innocence.
Making Feathers Fly by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As the titles roll into the dance sequence dream that opens Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, you know you’re in for a stunning two hours. It’s a batterie of cabrioles and bourrés en-pointe executed with as much fervour and panache as Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. It’s ballet at its most cinematic, up-close and personal and with enchanting edits, Natalie Portman suddenly donning feathers as crowlike von Rothbart transforms Odette into a swan in Tchaikovsky’s prologue to Swan Lake. It’s a mesmerising pas-de-deux, Aronofsky’s companion piece to The Wrestler with spandex shorts swapped for tutus. And as Nina discovers her dark side in the cutthroat New York ballet demimonde, Black Swan grips you in a headlock and won’t let go.
Fritz Scholder’s sculpture Future Clone, that appears in Nina’s inauguration gala as the Swan Queen before her cat-spat with expropriated lead Beth, looms large over Black Swan. It’s chilling like a Baselitz painting, all devoured face and wings, an evil spectre that all too clearly mirrors Nina’s search for her dark side. In dusky pink and white feathery scarf, she’s a perfect White Swan, controlled and pure. She’s an innocent child, her pink room still filled with fluffy rabbits and music boxes doomed for the garbage chute, infantilised by her black-eyed, domineering mother in a fabulously devilish turn by Barbara Hershey, who throws a strop when the wannabe-perfect sweet-girl refuses cake. And so, as Nina shuts mummy out with a privacy stick behind her bedroom door and a few hand-slams on the door-jamb, she searches for the Black Swan and the woman within, her identity splintering into shards like a broken mirror.
Like the split personality at the heart of Black Swan, the film’s palette is suitably monochrome, from Thomas Leroy’s ballet studio office in the Lincoln Center to the white-on-black titles and black-on-white credits. It’s a movement paralleled by Nina as her shoulder shrugs bleed from white to black. But as she sets off on her odyssey to passionate sexuality, the repressed double inside her is already scratching her way out. She’s an evil twin glimpsed on bridges, in mirrors, and as Black Swan Odile on the nightclub dancefloor, who from the red-raw scratches on Nina’s shoulder appears like a repressed cutting manifestation or a fear-of-infection fairytale doppelgänger. It’s a gothic, uncanny tale as the princess in the tower comes face to face with her sensual, if not perfect, double. But it’s an awkward journey to self-fulfilment, Nina never really discovering her inner womanhood, even in her lesbian fantasies, battling an evil twin instead in a perplexing final-reel looking-glass fight.
The ending is perhaps unsatisfactory, a flighty flitting between delusion and reality – momentary materialisations of her id as she gives herself head, stabs Beth with an emery board or sends her own identity flying into shattered shards in her final White Swan / Black Swan tussle. These fantasies are left open like gaping wounds, a conveniently nebulous and unresolved pas-de-deux of fact and fiction. But it’s an internal struggle that Natalie Portman utterly masters; from her mesmerising teary toilet telephone conversation of simultaneous joy and fear to her red-eyed Black Swan adagio, all strike-a-pose mantilla moodiness. Even more than her long-learned dexterous dancing.
Black Swan‘s cinematography may be low-key digital, but there’s also a suitably scary sound design of flapping feathers and whispering whooshes, enough to give you gooseflesh even if it does end up more incinerated than overcooked. But what haunts Black Swan the most is the nagging question, does Nina really have to die? As a consummate performer sacrificing herself for dance, could she not master black and white and live? It’s a fate construed by Aronofsky which even goes against the grain of Swan Lake, in which the White Swan drowns herself alongside her prince, who here only watches from the wings. It’s a bleak end for Black Swan, but it’s a monochrome fate Nina’s story overthrows, able to feather her crown in both white and black.
Black Swan is released in the UK on 21st January 2011