Black Swan (2010)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in Black Swan

If you believe ballet is a load of frilly nonsense for girls, then, for the first five minutes of Darren Aronofsky's multi-award nominated Black Swan, you might be forgiven for thinking your suspicions are about to be confirmed.

Spoilt, saccharine, goody-goody ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) dreams of dancing the lead in Swan Lake, only to wake in her pink and white sugary little girl's bedroom to discover her dream could be about to come true.

The only stumbling block? Convincing temperamental director Tomas (Vincent Cassel) that she can dance the fiery, passionate Black Swan as convincingly as she can the fragile, doomed White Swan, without losing the role to the new dancer on the block, easy-going, liberated Lily (Mila Kunis), whose pirouettes may be a little sloppy, but who oozes dangerous sexuality in a way that Nina both craves yet fears.

Natalie Portman's mind fractures as Nina in Black Swan

With her fluffy teddy bears, pastel wardrobe and meticulous, control-freak perfectionism, Nina is no evil seductress: to become her own dark nemesis, she must free her mind and her sexuality. No Nina, I said free, not lose… oh dear, too late.

Like Aronofsky's previous film, the astounding The Wrestler, Black Swan is an at times horrifying exposé of the grotesque lengths physical artists will go to in pursuit of perfection, and the devastating effect this can wreak on the psyche.

Seizing hold of the Swan Lake themes of good and evil, duplicity and subterfuge, and running wild with them, the film pulsates with off-kilter, multi-faceted reflections, juxtapositions of black and white, mysterious shadows and glaring spotlights, painful control and hallucinatory sexual abandon, all underpinned by an uneasy stream of erotic imagery – wandering hands, straining bodies, bleeding wounds – that soon transmutes into visceral body horror. Welcome to a Freudian maelstrom in which the delicate, furiously faultless superego is scratched awat to release a rapacious, unstoppable id, which Nina, in horror, projects onto her dark double, Lily.

Natalie Portman as the Black Swan

Like The Red Shoes in the hands of David Cronenberg, Black Swan combines spectacular dance sequences with some stomach-churning moments, as Nina's drive to dance and truly inhabit the role of the Black Swan becomes physically etched on her body. Like the Swan Queen she is gradually metamorphosing into, she is trapped in the spell cast by Tomas, the ballet and her ambition. And, viewing events entirely through her increasingly desperate eyes, we are no more of capable of separating deranged fantasy from reality than she is, as ensnared in her grainy, paranoid world of bleeding toes and leering mirror images as she is.

Just as Aronofsky wrung an Oscar-winning performance from Mickey Rourke, so too here he really gets his leading lady to act, and I mean act, so that finally we forget she's Natalie Portman doing some good acting and really believe that she is Nina. (Although kudos also to Barbara Hershey, who's superb as Nina's suffocatingly over-protective mother, a failed ballerina herself who both bolsters up and destroys her daughter with her smothering care.)

Revelling unashamedly in all the clichés of ballet fiction (the backstage bitching and backstabbing rivalry; eating disorders and pill popping;  the demanding, autocratic, foreign director, scary stage mother and broken leading lady retired before she's thirty) Black Swan is as gloriously deranged and OTT as Moulin Rouge or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's also one of the most stunning, gripping, disorientating, haunting movies I've seen in a while. Frilly nonsense for girls that will twist your mind while it turns your stomach: now that's my kind of ballet film.

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