Dancing with the scars


WITH its Oscar bona fides being touted since its debut at Venice in September last year, and a chic trailer set to a beautifully doleful Clint Mansell score, you could be forgiven for thinking that Black Swan was something more than a straight, up-and-down horror.

It isn’t.

It is, however, a solid first crack at genre filmmaking from indie darling Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), with occasional flashes of brilliance and some outstanding performances.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, an excruciatingly anxious ballerina striving for perfection. She is beset on all sides by the sleazy, tyrannical troupe director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), her Misery-style mother (Barbra Hershey), who doles out her hobbles emotionally, and competing ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis).

Despite this, Nina lands the ­coveted role of the Swan Queen in a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, replacing the reluctantly retired prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), but it is a poisoned chalice. Thomas goads Nina in an attempt to get her to explore her dark side for the all-important portrayal of the Black Swan, and when Lily arrives on the scene, Nina starts to spiral into ­madness.

What follows is a blurring of grim reality and nightmarish fantasy. Nina’s anguish reflects that of Tchaikovsky’s lovelorn White Swan, tormented by the evil Black Swan to the point of lunacy.

Aronofsky’s penchant for gruesome detail has featured in all his films (think Mickey Rourke picking staples out of his chest in The Wrestler, or Jared Leto trying to shoot heroin into a festering vein in Requiem For A Dream), but it works particularly well in the context of a horror.

And Black Swan is at its best when it stays true to the genre, recalling (read stealing) elements of horror maestro Dario Argento’s classic Giallo Suspiria.

There are some positively chilling moments dotted throughout Black Swan, the kind of stuff that will delight those of us who go to the cinema to be terrorised.

But the film suffers from the same malaise as its companion piece The Wrestler; namely Aronofsky’s inability to restrain himself. In the parts of the film that take bombast and bravura, it’s hard to fault Black Swan. But there is little restraint shown even in the films quieter moments, making this an exercise in oneupmanship to the bitter end.

The film’s score is confused too, with Mansell competing with Tchaikovsky for top billing, while Ryder’s gatekeeper character and Cassel’s impossibly diabolical Thomas are over-baked.

There is, however, plenty of Oscar buzz for Portman and rightly so. Unlike her director, Portman has a canny sense of light and shade. She knows full well when to hold back and when to ramp it up to 11.

In the end, though, Black Swan works. It is chilling, atmospheric and handsomely photographed, with enough tension and scares to keep audiences in its thrall all the way to the heady, violent end.

Rating: ****

Photo: Natalie Portman as Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

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