In Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, the viewer is dragged along as a group of drug-addled characters descend into an ever-escalating nightmare that doesn’t let up until the final frame. In The Wrestler, we follow one damaged, isolated misfit so closely that we feel we’re practically inside his head. In his dizzying latest release Black Swan, these two experiences are combined as we follow rising ballet star Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) on a disorienting journey into madness.
Watching Black Swan is an almost hysterical experience. From the moment Nina is cast in the make-or-break lead role in a production of Swan Lake, the tension barely lets up for a second. Portman is in every scene of this movie, and as with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, every aspect of the film is geared towards placing you as close to her point of view as possible, from the shaky, intrusive camera shots to the occasionally deafening soundtrack.
The plot has elements of everything from All About Eve to Inland Empire, by way of Rosemary’s Baby and, inevitably, The Red Shoes. There’s the promotion from chorus-line to centre stage at the expense of an ageing star (a brief but memorable turn by Winona Ryder), the possibility of romance with the director who questions her ability to truly inhabit the role, and the initially friendly new arrival who may or may not be plotting to take Nina’s place.
However all of these influences are merely a framing device for a surreal journey into Nina’s psyche as she begins to lose her grip on reality and her sense of self as she is subsumed into the twin roles of the tragic white swan and the passionate, uncontrolled black swan. Nina begins seeing mirror images of herself everywhere, cleverly shot so that the viewer shares her split-second confusion as to whether these doppelgangers are Nina or the trio of female characters who haunt her mind at every turn.
Portman’s performance, which initially seems somewhat mannered and one-note, soon reveals itself to be an extraordinary display of repressed fear and self-control. She spends the entire first half of this movie with her face in a riktus of sheer terror. Her entire life consists of the ballet studio and the claustrophobic flat where she endlessly practices, under the ever-watchful eyes of her ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey). Only once is she shown to venture into the real world, when she is manipulated into a hedonistic night out with spirited newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis). On returning to her flat, dizzy with drugs and alcohol, she briefly rebels in an angry confrontation with her mother. The scene is brief, but the utter transformation of Nina’s visage, as she her facial muscles relax and the fear disappears from her eyes for the first time, is astonishing.
The movie is unquestionably Portman’s show, but the supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Barbara Hershey makes a particularly strong impression as Nina’s mother Erica. The two evidently share an unhealthy relationship; Nina has been so infantilised by her mother that she allows her to dress and undress her, while Erica’s bedroom is a shrine to her daughter’s achievements. Rather than a place of escape, Nina’s flat is a claustrophobic hellhole where she can never escape from Erica’s gaze. In the hands of a lesser actress the role of Erica would have been a fairly rote ‘stage mother from hell’ performance, but Hershey wisely underplays it. At times her character exudes such genuine warmth that you can believe that Nina would have allowed herself to remain cocooned in this childlike state without making a break for independence. This makes the moments in which Erica’s behaviour reveals her to be obsessive and controlling all the more unsettling.
Mila Kunis is also strong, providing an important note of levity as the only character in the film who appears relatively well balanced. Vincent Cassel is perfectly cast, all smouldering Gallic passion and bravado. The character is a pretentious windbag, but we believe that the dancers would push themselves beyond their physical and mental limits for his approval, which seems at times to be more Nina’s goal than the stardom that a triumphant performance could promise.
This won’t be a film for everyone. It’s an intense, hysterical and challenging watch. The ambiguous question of what (if anything) is reality and what is a product of Nina’s unhinged mind will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers. But for the thrill of witnessing something genuinely different, if not entirely original, and that of seeing a talented actress finally coming of age in what will surely be one of the defining performances of her career, Black Swan is the first must-see movie of 2011.