I had the craziest dream last night. About a girl who was turned into a swan. She needs love to break the spell, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.
I had been looking forward to watching this film ever since first hearing about the premise. The professional dance training in my past and connection to the world of ballet combined with my admiration for the films of Aronofsky and his last one, The Wrestler, in particular meant that my usual impatience was magnified as the release date approached. As it happened I ended up watching it around Valentine's Day, continuing my rather twisted take on romance (The first gift I gave my now wife was a copy of Angels by Denis Johnson in which a man and woman meet on a Greyhound bus and both end up in various forms of incarceration) and was pleased that the film managed to survive my high expectations and some of the criticism that has been levelled at it recently. It is by no means a perfect film, and certainly not to all tastes. A bit like going to watch classical ballet itself, if you don't get it then it's going to be a very weird evening, if you can understand the language and go with it then it can be a transcendent pleasure. The film is modelled on Swan Lake itself which is why I've included the quote above. A young dancer perfectly suited to the role of the virginal White Swan has to find within her the sensuality and darkness required to play her evil twin, the Black Swan. Precision and restraint get in the way of passion and her obsessive focus begins to alter her perception of those around her.
Let us be clear first: this is NOT a film about ballet. The recent newspaper articles that packed professional dancers off to the cinema in order to provide their opinion on the veracity of the world depicted and the ballet technique of Natalie Portman were so misguided it isn't even funny. This is a film about madness and obsession, a companion piece to The Wrestler which featured a character similarly incapable of moving away from the world to which he had dedicated himself (and in particular, his body); it is a horror film rather than a realistic depiction of the backbiting and ambition of the American ballet scene. That said, Aronofsky shows in some telling detail the physicality of dance. The shots of pointe-shoes being broken down and customised, the bone-crunching and clicking as dancers adopt these unnatural positions, the sweat, the heavy breathing, the broken toenails, the hard skin; all brilliantly observed and true.
Natalie Portman has been hailed by some for the training she underwent to portray a ballet dancer (beginning a year before filming) and vilified by others for not being convincingly up to scratch. If that's how you're watching the film then I'm afraid you're missing so much but let me say as someone who trained professionally but hasn't danced in a long while (a bit like Portman) that I couldn't hope to come within a country mile of what she achieves in this film. Her body is starved down to that level that allows you to see the individual muscles moving in her back as she moves her arms up and down and her nervous and frail demeanor is visible in minute detail on her face where tiny muscle twitches and tics express so much. She dances convincingly but more importantly gives a performance of such dedication and commitment that it blows the theory that the role should have been given to a dancer who could act out of the water. Most of the actresses in Hollywood couldn't hope to match Portman here let alone the dancer/actresses.
There is excellent support from Vincent Cassel as the exploitative choreographer and Barbara Hershey as the domineering and bitter mother. Mila Kunis is sultry in her role as the competition and the only bum piece of casting comes in the form of Winona Ryder who has always been beautiful, never been able to act and couldn't convince anyone that she is, was or ever could be a ballet soloist. Aronofsky's handheld camera floats continuously, miraculously avoiding its reflection in the many mirrors and keeping close scrutiny on the actors helping to build the tension as it closes in or Portman particularly. The film is underscored brilliantly by music developed from Tschiakovsky and a sound design that heightens breathing and the sounds of the swan to chilling effect. You might criticise the film for being too insular, perhaps a little repetitive, I wondered whether it might have been a little shorter or even had the bulk of the dialogue stripped away, making it even closer to the ballet from which it is inspired. The overall tone is so heightened that there are even moments that make you want to laugh. We're not used to this tone in film making and certainly weren't prepared for it by The Wrestler but both films however different their styles are driven by the same theme of obsession, something of a unifying theme in Aronofsky's work. Where will it take him, and us, next?