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54th BFI London Film Festival: Black Swan

“Black Swan is an elegant, impeccably designed film in both form and content that should delicately pirouette into many cineastes’ films-of-the-year list.”

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Written by Mark Heyman

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell & Barbara Hershey

USA, 2010

In his new psychological musical Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky has delivered a curious accompaniment to his critically embraced The Wrestler, with both films featuring blistering central performances of obsessive physical performers, individuals with punishing regimes whom operate in their own hermetic sub-cultures; worlds where the pursuit of perfection is placed before any due respect to health or salubrity, be it of a mental or physical dimension. With snippets of Cronenberg’s early body horror operas and shards of Polanski’s creeping sexual paranoia, Black Swan is one of the finest American films screened so far at the London Film Festival, a gracefully dizzying piece of work, from its opening overture to its dazzling crescendo.

Natalie Portman, who could be in line for a best actress nomination next year, is Nina, a high-strung and deeply ambitious young ballerina at the prestigious New York National Ballet. Nina is under enormous psychological pressure from her strident mother (Barbara Hershey) to excel where she could not, to become the lead dancer at a gala performance, an ambition denied to her due to her falling pregnant twenty years ago, she now investing all her thwarted dreams into her brittle young progeny. Initially overjoyed that she has secured the central role in a new season of Swan Lake, Nina becomes increasingly anxious and obsessed with her performance, a persistent neurosis that is compounded with the arrival of a promising young rival named Lily (Mila Kunis) who may have her own ambitions for the ingénue spectacle.  Thomas Leroy, the troupes tyrannical creative director (played with a typical jovial intensity by Vincent Cassell) transfers his attention and affection to Nina from an aging dancer (Winona Ryder), a bitter and broken creature who may serve as a disturbing harbinger of Nina’s future trajectory. These numerous pressures and strains result in a slow mental deterioration as Nina  incrementally comes apart at the seams, with strange hallucinations, curious injuries and medical ailments bewitching her growing ambitions, her role and her real life entangling in a mesmerizing study of obsession and subconscious torment.

Black Swan is an elegant, impeccably designed film in both form and content that should delicately pirouette into many cineastes’ films-of-the-year list. From the opening overture, Aronofsky takes his hand-held camera onto the stage, in amongst the actors, to provoke a tangible sense of immediacy and reality to the scenes. Shooting on grainy 16mm, the film has a documentarian style which seems counter-intuitive for such an ornate and reputedly glamorous milieu. As in The Wrestler, the smaller details, the specific rituals and equipment of the trade are explored to sketch in the minutia, through a deft burst of montages in the films earlier scenes the levels of devotion and dedication required of these young performers are laid bare. The film is peppered with strong whites and blacks throughout its production design to emphasis the dual nature of Nina’s psyche, her distress almost spilling over to the real world,  a duopoly that Aronofsky elucidates with a judicious use of mirrors and reflections. Nina’s deteriorating grasp on reality is masterfully charted, and the film is quite gruesome in places, with some disconcerting flourishes staged to ensure that the viewers, like Nina, are not sure of the validity of what may have just occurred. The film’s greatest triumph, however, is the integration of the original Swan Lake narrative into the film as this is very much a re-interpretation of that canonic narrative in a cinematic form, as Nina is also a creature whose love is thwarted due to a rival – at least in her perceptions – a rivalry and jealousy which seems certain to lead to a tragic result. The cast of  Black Swan is uniformly excellent, with Portman excelling as the driven yet fractured Nina, and sterling support from both Hershey as her concerned but coercive mother and Kunis as her corrosive feminine nemesis. Aronofsky incorporates Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into a score by his regular collaborator Clint Mansell, a hybrid which provides a contemporary ambience to the menacing proceedings. Seductive, sensuous and sparsely sinister, Black Swan is one of the year’s best.

– John McEntee

visit the official site for the 54th BFI London Film Festival