Writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s melodramatic psychosexual thriller Black Swan plunges viewers into a familiar storytelling context – the blurry line between genius and insanity, this time tightroped by a self-consuming ballerina – and stretches its nightmarish hyper reality to damn near breaking point.
By the sin of ambition, wrote Shakespeare, “fell the angels,” and the film comes close to falling off the cliff of credibility and audience tolerance. But Aronofsky keeps it together with a savage and measured magnificence.
To describe Black Swan as a work of insane genius isn’t far off the mark. Aronofsky’s knack for stimulating the mind while whacking audiences across the skull – always with an emphasis on the latter – is back in full force. His hells bells hallucinatory style refined in Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Fountain (2006) took a breather for the sublime but harrowing The Wrestler (2008), a model of restraint by his standards and still one of the most gripping character studies in many years.
In Black Swan Natalie Portman gives a career best performance as Nina Sayers, who tries her svelte little heart out to land the leading role in a production of Swan Lake. Nina’s teacher Thomas (Vincent Cassel), whose intensity gives Armin Mueller-Stahl’s piano teaching tyrant from Shine (1996) a run for his money, barks at her to channel the dark side.
Once the big announcement arrives – she got the part! – Nina plunges into the rabbit hole, landing in a pit of broken mirrors that reflect mixed shards of reality and imagination.
Like Nina there are times in which the audience cannot be sure what is real and what is not. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote about the edge: “the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” To find the genius in Aronofsky’s head-trip, the audience must willingly throw themselves off the cliff hand-in-hand with Nina.
There is an awful erotic energy that courses through Black Swan, a sickly broth of raunch Aronofsky swigs to further emphasise notions of body, touch and physicality. Traces of it are sprayed like sex sweat throughout the film: the erotically intense relationship between dance teacher and student, the seething lesbian energy between Portman and co-star Mila Kunis, the crude sight of a man on a train making masturbation gestures.
Mingled with visions of mangled limbs, short bursts of violence and a spate of changes to Nina’s body – a rash here, a broken finger nail there – Aronofsky varnishes Black Swan in splotches of physical grotesquery to match the film’s psychological wildness. This unholy marriage is key to Black Swan’s success as an over the top convulsion of emotions and an example of measured delirium so bold, so crazy, so calculated that by some stroke of madness it works. Spectacularly.
Black Swan’s Australian theatrical release date: January 20, 2010.