Directed By Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder
It might be a ballet movie, but Black Swan, the latest from The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky, offers a similar warts-and-all glimpse backstage at the killing floor of a profession that requires gruelling physical commitment only to see today’s legends become quickly forgotten, easily replaced relics. Between delivering a companion piece to his Mickey Rourke wrastlin’ opus and taking inspiration from sources as abundant and eclectic as Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Dostoevsky’s The Double, Mommy Dearest, Cronenberg’s body horror movies and Hitchcock, Argento and Brian De Palma, there’s familiarity inherent in Aronofsky’s film.
But like any fairytale – and Black Swan is certainly in part a dark fairytale – the merit of a familiar story is found in the quality of craft and reinterpretation, and there’s no denying the director delivers masterful work here, fashioning a film that’s unique, gripping, beautiful and horrifying. The fact that Aronofsky makes a ballet movie so enthralling is a surprise in itself; that he makes a melding of ballet drama, psycho-sexual thriller, body horror and dark, paranoid fairytale not only immediately accessible but damn near perfect is an even bigger shock.
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Introverted, fragile ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) lives with her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) while quietly coveting the lead role in a new version of Swan Lake by famed director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Unfortunately, it’s a role of two halves, and while she’s a natural fit for one half of the role – the virginal, delicate White Swan – the raw, uninhibited passion required for the character’s evil twin, the Black Swan, completely eludes shy, obsessive-compulsive Nina. Taking a chance, Thomas gives her the role and encourages her to embrace her primal instincts to embody the role of the Black Swan, but the intense pressure starts Nina on a steady descent into madness as a strange rash on her skin starts to worsen and the dance company’s seductive wild-child newcomer (Mila Kunis) seems intent on stealing her role.
Black Swan is essentially a ’70s/’80s horror film lurking in the body of an art film, and while the mish-mash of influences and ideas should on paper result in a chaotic mess of a film, in practice it’s an impressively delicate and balanced juggling act. Aside from the unfortunate moment or two when the film’s symbolic parallels and narrative turns are overtly signposted and overexposed as Vincent Cassel loudly spells some things out, Aronofsky crafts the film as elegantly and precisely as a prima ballerina. The body horror elements as Nina’s body falls prey to ballet injury or starts to decay and seemingly transform into something inhuman as her madness worsens are wincingly painful to witness, bringing moments of shattered toenails, the horrific peeling of skin and cracked bones that’ll have you instinctively cringing and covering your eyes in shock. The subtle moments of surreal horror are equally effective, too, as Nina’s descent into nightmarish paranoia deepens, accentuated by subtle scares and creepingly intrusive camerawork.
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The backstage ballet drama threatens to fall flat when introduced – after all, the backbiting cattiness of young women climbing over each other to succeed in a heartless, dog-eat-dog profession is a well-worn trope that’ll be all too familiar to anyone who’s caught an episode of America’s Next Top Model – but is given new life thanks to a cavalcade of stunning performances. Natalie Portman bagged herself an Oscar with the role, and it’s not surprising that she delivers a performance that’s beautifully understated, delicately shy and breathtakingly confident when called for; her delivery helps ground moments that risk being ridiculous in less skilled hands and make the character’s shift from “ugly duckling” to commanding Black Swan a weighty and entralling one.
And while Portman’s the performance-of-a-lifetime standout, she’s backed up by an almost-as-impressive ensemble: Vincent Cassel is simultaneously charismatic and slimy as Nina’s hands-on director; Mila Kunis is as charming, sexy, magnetic and seductive as any femme fatale should be; Barbara Hershey is delightfully unsettling as Nina’s domineering mother and Winona Ryder impresses in a few short scenes as the former ballet queen cast aside to make way for a younger incarnation. There’s enough layered depth of story and character to demand and reward repeat viewings, too, thanks to our less-than-reliable narrator; Thomas Leroy’s relationship with student/actress Nina, which seems at first to be a creepy one begging for a sexual harassment suit (like recommend that she masturbate as homework) could just as easily be seen as the director’s unorthodox method acting way of pushing her to embrace her sexuality to better embody the seductive Black Swan role.
Merging high art with pulp horror is a task that few filmmakers could pull off this beautifully, yet Aronofsky manages it masterfully. Black Swan is a mesmerising movie, and whether your tastes skew towards unsettling horror movies or the Bolshoi ballet, there’ll undoubtedly be some part of Black Swan that will prove enthralling and unforgettable.
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Shot on 16mm film as opposed to high-def digital or 35mm film stock, Black Swan is naturally a very soft and grainy film in appearance, so don’t expect a Blu-ray transfer that’s immaculately detailed. The Blu-ray does, however, preserve the film’s documentary-style look as perfectly as possible, and looks as flawless as intended by the filmmaker.
Aurally the disc is especially impressive. Black Swan is a film that relies heavily on sound for its atmosphere and jolting shocks, and the DTS-HD Master Audio mix is a very active, perfectly handled one, whether it’s delivering the wincing slice of scissors, the pulsing beat of a nightclub’s soundtrack or the sublime beauty of the film’s ballet score.
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The special features on the disc offer a plentiful array of extras for those wanting a peek behind the curtain of the film’s production. ‘Black Swan Metamorphosis’ provides a 49 minute ‘Making Of’ feature that gives a refreshingly in-depth, entertaining look at the production, touching on pretty much everything from camera techniques to set design, conception to special effects. There’s a tonne of input from Aronofsky, the cast and crew and very little that’s not covered. If that weren’t enough behind-the-scenes stuff, there’s also several shorter featurettes – ‘Ballet’, ‘Production Design’, ‘Costume Design’, ‘Profile: Natalie Portman’ and ‘Profile: Darren Aronosfsky’.
‘Conversation: Preparing for the Role’ and ‘Conversation: Dancing with the Camera’ feature Aronofsky interviewing Portman on her ballet coaching and preparation. A series of short EPK interviews titled ‘Fox Movie Channel Present: In Character With…’ provides chats with Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey and Darren Aronofsky. Unfortunately the shorter features aren’t quite as interesting as the beefier documentary, but they’re nice inclusions nonetheless and there’s plenty to dive into. Also included is the theatrical trailer.
Black Swan is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.
(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the film looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)