In Black Swan Natalie Portman plays an inexperienced and highly strung ballet dancer who unexpectedly gets cast in the lead role of a prestigious New York production of Swan Lake. The character starts the film in an emotionally fragile state and she then struggles to cope with pressure from various sources including the ballet’s manipulative and predatory director (Vincent Cassel playing it suave and reminding me of a Gallic Robert Mitchum), her embittered and pushy mother (an incredibly sinister Barbara Hershey) and her own growing paranoia.
This is not one of those films where the subtext is difficult to work out. The lead character’s gradual mental disintegration is graphically underlined by sequences showing her falling apart physically (if you’re squeamish about toenails you might want to prepare yourself) and the ballet’s director actually states on more than one occasion that the dancer will not succeed unless she lets herself lose control and allows her dark side to come out. The narrative trajectory of the piece is made obvious from the get-go and the interest comes from finding out how the inevitable end point will be reached.
Fortunately, given the transparency of the plot, there’s plenty of full-blooded material here to keep you watching. Portman does very well with an extraordinarily demanding role – she’s on screen for at least 95 per cent of the film’s running time, and is frequently either in a state of hysteria or executing complex ballet moves. The film slowly starts to show indications of the dancer’s growing instability: initially some well staged subliminal effects, later there are whole scenes that may have only taken place inside her head. She always seems to be being surprised by unexpected presences or catching unreliable reflections in one of the many mirrors that are littered throughout the film. It’s reminiscent, in a good way, of early Roman Polanski films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant.
By the time we get to the climactic final half hour all subtlety has been abandoned and you’ll either be willing to give the lurid, but again impressively realised, special effects a free pass on account of the careful hour long build-up or you’ll dismiss it as all being overcooked and silly. I thought it was just fine, and certainly the film held my attention throughout. My only real quibble was that it looked like it had been shot on low-grade digital video, which may have suited the bits set in grimy subways and poky apartments but seemed to sell the ballet scenes short. The Red Shoes, a superficially similar film, was shot in magnificent Technicolor which helped its central dance section astound – here, it’s more like looking at backstage documentary footage.