Film review by: Witney Seibold
Darren Aronofsky‘s “Black Swan” is like getting a soothing massage while a demon breathes directly into your face. It’s like what happens inside the brain of a Die Antwoord video. It’s like showering in a cave full of leeches. It’s like what would happen of Powell and Pressberger directed “Clean, Shaven.”
“Black Swan” is a film about a ballerina, and the drama she experiences when she is asked to perform the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake.” More than that, though, it’s about a young woman whose stymied sexuality, oppressive home life, and arrested childhood serve to offer her a simultaneous breakout into ecstatic passion and outright, hallucinatory insanity. The film locks you in and doesn’t let you go. “Black Swan” is one of the best films of the year.
Natalie Portman plays the lead role of Nina, and her girlish looks and eternally startled face serve the part of a skittish womanchild well. Nina is a girl in a woman’s body, who still lives at home with her mother, and whose room looks like a bunny-obsessed 11-year-old’s brain threw up. Her mother (a sublimely sinister Barbara Hershey) dotes on her and coos to her, and talks baby talk to her. Nina plays along with her mother’s games, as she has likely been groomed her entire life. Nina’s father is rarely discussed. What we observe, in small doses, is a classic stage mom subconciously conditioning her child.
Nina dances for a New York dance company, run by the reptilian Tomas (the excellent Vincent Cassel). Tomas is putting on a production of “Swan Lake,” and needs someone to play both the innocent white swan, and the sensual black swan. Nina is perfect for the prim, mannered and technically excellent former, but has no real-life passions to draw on for the latter. Someone who could more easily play a black swan would be Nina’s free-spirited classmate Lily (Mila Kunis), who has tattoos, eats burgers, shags strangers, and takes ecstasy at dance clubs. Nina resents Lily, but is also drawn to her. That they begin to share a sexual regard should not come as a surprise.
Nina is also hated by the company’s former star Beth (Winona Ryder), who suspects that Nina is sleeping her way to the top. The rivalries,.though, are only a part of Nina’s gorgeously lurid unraveling. She is also, it seems, discovering sex for the first time. She claims not to be virgin, but we don’t entirely believe her. The woman seems so shut off from any sort of sexual passion, or any sort of real-life social interaction at all. She has been chipped away and worn down by years of care stage-mom-ing, and is now a gentle exhalation of a human being. There are a few masturbation scenes. She at least has that.
So far, this sounds like a typical backstage drama, but Aronofsky – a master of characters who are trapped by their obsessions and insular lifestyles – punctuates his story with several refreshingly disturbing bouts of painful auto-violence, and, in the more bugnuts-crazy portions, oddball physical mutations. Hangnails, scratches, crackling feet, throbbing wounds, and dripping blood only serve to accentuate the body horror intimate to most athletes and dancers. Nina is a woman who is obsessed with her own body. Whether she’s listening to her vagina, or ripping skin from her hands, she is grounded in physicality. Dancing is strenuous to the body. Dancing in front of thousands is strenuous to the mind. Nina becomes wrapped in between.
“Black Swan” has the appealing, ultrasaturated, lurid melodrama of a Douglas Sirk film, mixed with the disturbing bodily horror and insane obsessions of a David Cronenberg film. And, somehow, it manages to balance its melodrama and its horror perfectly, making for a wonderful heterogeneous bouillabaisse, disguised as Jackie Collins, but is actuality, the deep, Dantean, demonic recesses of a twisted pit of madness.