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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Black Swan

Natalie Portman as the Swan Queen

Director Darren Aronofsky (2010)

Ballet, more than any sport, stretches the human body to its limits. The ballerina, especially, achieves her weightless grace over years of punishing training, paying the price for her impossible beauty with broken bones and bulimia.

There is a psychological cost, too. What ambition, what obsession drives her to endure such pain? What rivalries, what jealousies plague her mind?

In its perverse quest, ballet takes the common pressure for women to attain a perfect body image, to fulfill contradictory social demands, to its extreme.

It’s great material for a film, as Powell and Pressburger showed in The Red Shoes, and as Darren Aronofsky does, too, in a cruder style in Black Swan.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a technically gifted and dedicated dancer with her eyes on the prize role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. As if ballet didn’t ask enough, this part also requires her to bifurcate into the ‘good’ White Swan and her ‘evil’ twin, the Black Swan.

As a good girl, Nina has difficulty tapping into the dark and dirty side of herself to produce the wilder Black Swan performance. But never fear, artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is keen to help, prescribing masturbation and mild sexual assault, administered by himself, to get her past her block.

There is also has the model of fellow ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) to follow. Lily plays Alex Higgins to Nina’s Steve Davis. She’s the natural talent who can go out boozing and drugging and shagging and turn up for rehearsals next morning fresh as a daisy, and everyone loves her for it.

In Nina’s increasingly fevered mind Lily shifts and merges with two other alter egos, her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who has transferred her ambitions to her daughter, and the bitter retiring prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder).

They are externalised aspects of her tortured self, the embodiments of a multiple personality disorder (forgot to mention she’s mad as cheese) through which Nina pleasures and pains herself. Mostly pains. Ballet is, of course, a ritualised social form of self-harm but she goes further.

These are serious themes, but Black Swan is not quite, in the end, a serious film. The issue of women’s oppression is there, but not really dealt with. Deliberate or not, it’s quite funny in places. Also quite scary. Even though we have a pretty clear idea early on what’s really happening the tension is sustained throughout.

It’s a good romping melodrama, too. Aronofsky is happy to see everything in black and white and the lack of subtlety works well for his purposes. If you’re going to crack a nut why use a Nutcracker when there’s a Swan Lake sledgehammer to hand?

January 25, 2011

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