Be careful what you wish for
With the film world overrun with western remakes, sci-fi epics and teen dance movies, I don’t feel I’ve seen a proper psychological thriller for a while. Whereas the 70s gave us Don’t Look Now, and the 80s burned images from Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle into our brains (notice how the term “bunny-boiler” is universally understood ever since?), film seemed to take a sharp turn away from the ‘realistically, frighteningly surreal’ (by which I draw a distinction with David Lynch’s own brand of ‘confusingly surreal’) towards either straightforward horror or crime drama.
Darren Aronofsky has, right from the beginning, forged a different path. In the space of only five feature films (since his inaugural Pi in 1998) Aronofsky sees his latest creation nominated for five Academy Awards in this year’s contest, following his success two years ago with Mickey Rourke’s comeback The Wrestler. With the exception of a major trip-up (The Fountain was completely lambasted), he has consistently shown flair in not just his film-making style, but his choice of story.
A ballet movie might seem, nonetheless, an unusual narrative for a director whose last film involved Mickey Rourke’s character picking shards of glass and industrial-strength staples from his overtanned and muscly back. Or maybe not. Black Swan follows a talented and emotionally fragile ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) on her quest to secure the lead role in “Swan Lake”. Her ability to portray the white half of the swan is not at issue – but ballet master Tomas (the ever-sleazy, squirm-inducing Vincent Cassel) pushes Nina to prove she can inhabit the role of the seductive, powerful, intoxicating black swan. What with the pressure Nina places upon herself, competition from her fellow dancers, in particular the free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis), and the suffocating love of her stage-mom (a well-cast Barbara Hershey), Nina rapidly spirals out of control amidst sinister hallucinations and paranoid anxiety.
This suffocating paranoia is brilliantly evoked in Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, the camera swirling madly around Nina’s pirouettes, and constantly following uncomfortably close to the back of her immaculately coiffed head. Shot on grainy film, mostly dark with hints of ballet pink and white, the overall look of the film perfectly matches its ominous tone. Clint Mansell (like Libatique, another Aronofsky regular) provides a score which keeps us on edge in between the glorious bursts of Tchaikovsky’s classic.
And of course there is Natalie Portman in the titular role. Portman has been doing great work ever since her (very) young days on films such as Luc Besson’s iconic Leon (aka The Professional), and if we ignore blips like Queen Amidala in the latest Star Wars trilogy – surely a blot on all the actors’ professional landscapes – she is consistently good. In this film she echoes the vulnerability seen in Brothers, with a twitch on her uptight face saying everything about the pain she’s smothering within. While her trajectory from “frigid”, polished dancer to exciting, daring star is narratively straightforward, Portman certainly delivers on the nuance. She is my bet (and hope) for Best Actress this year, even if it is to be seen as a reward for her body of work.
On that note, I hope this is Aronofsky’s year, too. He is up for Best Director, and likely in all honesty to lose to David Fincher or maybe even David O. Russell. But here he has crafted an exquisite film with all the elements of a Don’t Look Now-esque thriller, with fine performances and an intoxicating look-and-feel. On a personal note, he has just lost his partner of a decade to (allegedly) the latest James Bond. So, come on – give the man an Oscar. He’s earned it.