No Ugly Duckling: Black Swan

Flossie Topping reports on Darren Aronofsky’s latest from the Venice Film Festival

On hearing about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the New York ballet, I assumed quite a departure from his last, award-winning film The Wrestler (2008) but Aronofsky claimed he saw many similarities between them – “The more I looked into ballet, I actually started to see all these similarities to the world of wrestling. They both have these performers that use their bodies in extremely intense physical ways”. Natalie Portman, who stars as the swan queen in a fictional production of Swan Lake, is said to have undergone intense physical training which can be seen in the film’s complex choreography. The film views as if you were watching the ballet, only every emotion is heightened as it uses the medium of cinema to delve further into the story. Portman’s transformation from girl into swan is frightening and grotesquely literal in its portrayal. She plays the role perfectly, from the dancer who is determined to succeed and devoted to her craft, to the perfection-obsessed performer on the verge of insanity. Her choreographer, played by Vincent Cassel, is suitably cruel and his creepy sexual advances add a corrupting slant to the dancer’s innocent world, penetrated by the pressure of the lead role and by her understudy (Mila Kunis) who pushes her towards a life of drinks and pills.

The media’s fascination with the suggested sex scene in the trailer between Portman and Kunis was commented upon in a press conference where Portman enigmatically said “Darren described it as having a sex scene with yourself, as the character undergoes a battle with her ego” and that she found the role “challenging and interesting”. When we first meet the females, their interactions are coy and reserved, but as the plot unfolds their relationship becomes aggressive and passionate as the competitive spirit of the dancers takes over.

Aronofsky has said that he is “terrified of ballet backlash” as he confidently comments on several controversial issues surrounding the industry, including the attitude towards age, with Winona Ryder playing the ageing prima ballerina driven to a bloody suicide on hearing she must retire. He also exposes the fine line between tutors who abuse their students and dancers who use sexual prowess to secure roles, as well as commenting on the array of eating disorders present throughout the company and the widespread use of narcotics, especially those with muscle relaxant properties.

The film revitalises and rejuvenates the popular ballet into a seat gripping, nail-biting spectacle. The almost unbearable tension created by Aronofsky is reminiscent of his Requiem for a Dream (2002), keeping audiences behind cages of fingers and provoking audible gasps. Not to mention the powerfully dramatic score which lingers well beyond the credit sequence. With Portman already being talked up as a serious contender in next year’s Academy Awards, Black Swan is a sure-fire hit this winter!

Black Swan is on UK release from February 11th 2011

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