I was afraid of Black Swan. ‘It’s Dario Argento on crack’, ‘It’s Mullholland Drive meets Cronenberg’, were only a couple of the nightmarish concoctions they’d described it as. But scarier still is that this was in fact Aronofsky, and as deep and dark as he was going to go I knew he would suck me hopelessly down with him. For all its other comparisons, this is a definitive Aronofsky picture: it slowly digs its nails into your eyes before tearing you headlong into the unchartered darkness of the psyche.
Black Swan is the twisted tale of good-girl ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) as she struggles with sexual-repression, fears, jealousy and her darkest inner-impulses to unlock the dual-role of The White and Black Swan. As her bottled-frustrations intensify, the darkness of the id begins to puncture its way out, warping her real-world in paranoiac and dysmorphic visions.
Black Swan immediately crackles within a grainy and squalid picture. It is brusque ballet – harsh to the eye but infectious on the mind. Like Pi and Requiem For A Dream it feels grimy, oppressive even, but intensely cerebral. Aronofsky’s raw style, close, coarse and intrusive, is masterfully wrought. There’s a fiercely sophisticated eye behind the camera, deceptively simple and psychological in its compositions. There’s always something in the shot slightly distorted and alluring that makes even its most unpleasant scenes compulsive.
Black Swan is psychological horror at its most compelling. There’s something of the fallen fairytale that heightens its drama deep within the consciousness; the embittered matriarch and the jaded lover, ‘The Little Princess’ and her dark love rival, all made monstrous and deformed into something strangely enchanting and sublime.
Portman’s anguished fragility keeps our nerves ratcheted right to the edge. It’s a career defining turn that shoulders the full-brunt of the film’s extreme tensions and atmosphere. Her fears truly become our own as the Black Swan wrestles its way to the surface, and her ultimate transformations are horrifying, stunning and utterly captivating in equal measure. This is the performance of her career.
However the supporting cast are genuinely invaluable in enabling the performance. The fears, sexuality and jealousy that claw within Nina are tangibly manifest in the visceral confidences of Kassel’s predatory director and Hershey’s grotesque suffocating mother, while Mila Kunis ignites with unfettered sex, menace and attitude. Their threatening charisma is indispensable in enriching that nervous frailty and fear at Nina’s and Black Swan’s heart.
Essentially, it is that fearful juxtaposition, in the truest of horror movie traditions, that makes Black Swan so powerful. Only with Aronofsky, that most dangerous horror and contradiction exists within and exudes itself in the most brutal and fantastic forms. Black Swan is frenetic, dark and violent; physically, sexually and psychologically brutal yet simultaneously majestic. It holds you ruthlessly, building and building towards that exhilarating Aronofsky crescendo. And in Black Swan he out does himself in his final act and, yes, that includes Requiem For A Dream.
All that energy, all that fear, all that schizophrenic fantasy rushes about to the surge and lulls of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Suddenly the film dives head-first into the dark delirium and just continues to tumble and tumble and tumble: The sheer momentum helplessly transfixing. The horror, the fear and the violence climaxes with an exhilarating magnificence rarely rivalled in cinema as the screen fades away to white-out.
As always with Aronofsky it is ill-advised to compare his films to others, plainly because no one does them the way he can. With Black Swan he will take you places: ugly, scary, threatening places but ultimately you will leave the cinema knowing it was one of the most vivid and beautiful nightmares you ever saw.
Black Swan is showing at Phoenix Square until February 3rd. For the latest film releases at Phoenix Square, click here