Darren Aronovsky’s Black Swan is probably the most hyped film of the year. Natalie Portman is tipped for an Oscar, having won the Golden Globe for best actress. This is a gothic fairy tale based on the ballet Swan Lake, telling the story of Nina, who gets her dream role as the swan queen. Her white swan is second nature – fragile, retiring, virtuous – but locating her inner black swan is somewhat trickier. Vincent Cassell’s manipulative and exacting artistic director will sacrifice anything, even his prima ballerina’s sanity, for the sake of his art. And then there is Lily (Mila Kunis) who seems to effortlessly be able to find all the danger and edge required for the black swan, that Nina so lacks.The film whips itself into a frenzy of psychological disintegration, sexual awakening and personal discovery, that reaches a tense and emotional crescendo, at which point you realise you’ve spent the last 90 minutes inside Nina’s head and become attached to her, very much emotionally invested in her, without being aware of it. This ‘portrait’ style of film, where the viewer is in the character’s mind, makes it a very unsettling film. Nina is not sure what is real and what is imagined, and so neither are we.
It is melodramatic in many ways but so is ballet and the stories it portrays. This film delves deep into warped mother-daughter relationships, repressed sexuality and what happens when we try to force women to remain virginal little girls and the cruel reality of being a woman in a profession that prizes beauty and youth above all else (Winona Ryder’s ageing ballerina becomes almost a Phantom-of-the-Opera character). This is definitely over-hyped but also one of the few films you’ll see this year to dare to look inside the murky mind of a sad, sad girl. 4/5 Edel Coffey
Go home, touch yourself, live a little, says sleaze-bucket Thomas Leroy, an abusive for the sake of art ballet boss to his could-be magnificent dancer, Nina. As it stands she’s too innocent & blanched for the lead part in Leroy’s semi-libidinous, risqué adaptation of Swan Lake. A bit like the proverbial beetle on its back being prodded by a spiteful school-kid, there comes a point in this film not too far in where even the audience can’t take the torture rack much longer, willing a shipload of diabolism into Nina’s heart so she can get to where she needs to in order to be a star. It’s extremely fast paced, compelling, horribly spooky as well as horny, overly dramatic and a bit silly, but nonetheless beautifully shot and packaged to keep you saucer-eyed to the end. Reviews have described it as a ‘psychological thriller’ but I’d say it’s really too predictable for that: more a textbook exploration of split psyche. As we do repression and the whole doppelgänger thing very well here in Ireland, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to the mother’s character, played by Barbara Hershey. She desperately wants her daughter to live a successful re-run of her own life that she halted in order to have her daughter, while at the same time resenting any progress in getting there. Jealousy and megalomania spits and clappers all over this film, a bunny hop of meanness, mischief, misery and malevolence, even a touch of evil Sesame Street at times. A great lesbian sex scene as well, where for just a brief moment, Swan Lake turns into Swan Lick, cued with some erratic helpings of Tchaikovsky and The Chemical Brothers. I’d be nuts to say I didn’t love it though afterwards it made me feel deranged. 4/5 June Caldwell
Black Swan rehabilitates pop culture’s traditional use of pink in film. Normally the hue is used to connote an ultra-feminine innocent allure, a non-threatening go-get-‘em-girl moxie, or an excess of frivolity and consumption, as imagined in cinema fare such as Pretty in Pink, Legally Blonde or Marie Antoinette. Aronofsky’s film gives audiences a fresh interpretation of the colour pink by illustrating its potential to marginalise women from themselves. Nina (played by Natalie Portman) clad in a shell pink coat seems vulnerable on the subway to rehearsal, as well as among the roseate overtones in her bedroom, which magnify an arrested development, a woman trapped in a teenager’s world. Nina’s desire for perfection is hampered by a struggle to cast off the thwarted pink existence. There’s also how pink turns up in food to highlight the battle for Nina’s growth as an artist. She can marvel and coo over her ‘pretty’ breakfast of half a pink grapefruit, a meagre start to a gruelling day en pointe. But later, she can’t partake in the pink ballerina cake without either a blow up with her controlling mother, or else a guilty shame spiral over the calorie count involved. Whether fruit or pastry, pink comestibles underscore the rigid policing at hand for any ballerina with her eye on centre stage. For once at the cinema, pink was made sinister, unmoored from the limp, simpering value it has historically carried. When Nina embraces black and red, the Pink Swan of her girlhood has been conquered. 5/5 Megan McGurk
For those of us that merely watch from the wings, the world of professional ballet seems extraordinarily anomalous. Punishing self-sacrifice, the honing of a merciless stamina and the apparent eschewing of all else in pursuit of the perfect pas de deux or pirouette couldn’t be more alien to the powder-puff pinkness of little girls pointing their pretty toes, a gender appropriate after school activity that many of us may have experienced at one time.
Tales of bleeding, deformed feet and hideous, debilitating spinal injuries abound and the requirement for female dancers to be whippet thin has led to serious concern about the possible prevalence of eating disorders amongst young dancers. Irishwoman Monica Loughman, at age 14 the first Westerner to dance for the State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Perm, describes her years of struggle in Russia’s Perm Ballet School in her book, The Irish Ballerina. Darcy Bussell, formerly the youngest ever principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, describes how she got an early insight into the damage that ballet can do when she met a clearly ailing and crippled Rudolf Nureyev who was struggling with hip problems. She did not take proper note of this “Instead, I danced when I was feverish and when I was so badly injured that I was in searing pain.” When she retired in 2007, aged 37 she was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying “Ten years ago, an orthopaedic surgeon told me that my hips were only 50 per cent as good as they should be for someone my age and that I would probably need hip replacement operations.”
It is this darker side of the ballet world that is so powerfully put under the microscope in Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan, leading it to be hailed as a companion piece to his acclaimed 2008 film The Wrestler, as both examine the demands imposed by a driven individual on themselves as they pursue their overriding passion. Nina, a young, obsessive and frigidly uptight member of a ballet company lives with her overbearing, neurotic mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who frequently reminds Nina that she ruined her career. She obsessively pursues perfection in her dancing and flashes of her disturbed state of mind are evident early as we learn of instances of self abuse and observe her unhealthy relationship with food and her frequent bouts of vomiting. When ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) dumps his “ageing” prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (played by a hysterical Winona Ryder) Nina is given the chance to audition for the lead role of Odette/Odile in a new production of Swan Lake. Leroy, a sinister Svengali who preys upon his young ballerinas, tells her she is perfect to play the virginal Odette but lacks the passion needed in a convincing Odile, the evil Black Swan. Determined to prove him wrong and see off the competition, in the sensual form of sexy dancer Lily, played by Mila Kunis, Nina taps into her dark side and plumbs frightening depths in the process.
The use of shocking, Gothic imagery and intense, jerky, close-ups allows the audience to follow Nina’s inevitable breakdown from her own unreliable perspective as she increasingly fails to differentiate fantasy from reality. The shocking denouement seems inevitable from early on. Dark, intense and with themes of Gothic horror throughout Black Swan is utterly compelling and explores the fragility of adolescent mental health in the face of intense, overbearing pressure; the dangers of living vicariously through your children; and the nasty outcomes when powerful, manipulative men prey on young vulnerable girls. All this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking cinema experience, albeit one spent watching through splayed fingers, but may make you reconsider those ballet lessons for your tiny tot. 4/5 Eleanor Fitzsimons