A quick recap: as a new ballet season approaches, sheltered and neurotic ballerina Nina (Natalie) wants to shine - not just for herself, but for the company and for her mother (Barbara Hershey), whose own dancing career was cut short when she became pregnant. Given the chance to audition for the prime role of Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake, her naivety and repression stalls her from committing to the dance of the black swan, and she is devastated. She seeks another chance from teacher Thomas (Vincent Cassel) who sees a dark potential her fragility and gives her top billing. As she strives to perfect the dual personality of the Swan Queen she becomes increasingly paranoid that retiring star Beth (Winona Ryder) and new belle Lily (Mila Kunis) are out to sabotage her. She is also haunted and struck by terrible images and hallucinations, and strange and frightening scratches and bleeding appearing all over her body. As the inaugural show beckons, Nina's heightened state of hysteria reaches fever pitch and then the curtains are down, and the audience is waiting for her: can she prove to herself and everyone watching that she can dance, and become, the black swan?
(there was a loud crash of the gate outside after I wrote that - oo-er!)
Black Swan is an experience. I saw it two days ago and it's still with me now - it has enormous power, and while I immediately knew as the credits rolled that I wanted to see it again, it wasn't as soon as I want to now. It's not just Natalie's performance and certain scenes that stick in your mind, it's all the detail that goes with it: the angles, the facial expressions, the music - particularly the music and the way it powers up and down the volume scale depending on what's happening on screen. Tchaikovsky is actually a brilliant scorer for a horror movie soundtrack: the quiet and tingly softness for the calmer moments of the film, and then the louder, angrier clashing of sounds for operatic and frenzied passion and violence. I don't think Aronofsky could have picked a better set-up than Swan Lake to do a story about ballet, and also a portrait of a messed up young woman: what better slate than a tale of multiple personality, of bipolar acting, of life and death, of black and white? All the answers to the film's duplicity and hallucinogenic visions are within the story of Swan Lake. But very, very cleverly this obvious sledgehammer is forgotten about - not once did I see the similarity to guess the blatant ending, and thank God for that otherwise it would have been a completely different experience.
It's also relentless - a lot more than I was anticipating. I was expecting a slow burn, with a prolonged sense of dread emanating in a spectacular last third where everything goes batshit crazy (from the trailer and from other people's stunned reviews coming out of Venice). But almost straight away there is an instability about Nina and a madness which is opened to the viewer: more than once she thinks she sees another version of herself, a doppelganger, echoing her footsteps, and then her mirror image taking on a life of its own inside the glass. We also get more corporeal traits: such as her never alluded to bulimia (we never see her eat, only her nervousness when her mother presents her with a cake and she reluctantly eats some frosting - it's not shown but it's fairly clear she would throw this up later) and the red raw scratches on her back which seem to spring up from nowhere, but what her mother is adamant is a form of self-harm she has battled with for years. Broken nails and bleeding skin also add to the general sense of pain being carried out on the body - and not just the necessary pain a ballerina goes through to create elegance and strength as she dances, but something further and more dangerous.
Then there are the people in Nina's life who are impacting upon her too: the relationship with her mother is claustrophobic, burgeoning on abuse. She has lived her failed life through Nina: desperate for her to be a star, to deliver her potential, but not allowing her to grow as a person outside of the ballet world: her room is girlishly pink filled with fluffy toys, and a musical jewellery box acts as a lullaby to get to sleep, while the mother on occasion sleeps beside her in the same room all night. It's very, very freaky and Barbara Hershey is awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time - when she discovers the scratches on Nina's back and pulls her forcefully into the bathroom to snip at her nails with a pair of scissors, it felt very much like a scene from Carrie, the same horror from a mother whose obsession to keep her daughter pure and innocent is unpredictable and possessed.
Thomas, the sleazy ballet teacher, who tells Nina to "touch herself" for homework is destructive but in not such a telling way: he doesn't realise the damage he is doing to Nina, the pressure he is putting her under and how she is not responding in a normal, healthy way. It was the absurdity of his role which lent the film to its more ridiculous moments: I couldn't decide if he was affecting the villain or if he was a terrible actor. I'm not familiar with Vincent Cassel so I don't know. Either way he is incredibly unlikeable, and not someone who warms the screen.
In direct comparison to Lily and Mila Kunis, who though it was hard for Meg from Family Guy not to peep through on occasion, her energy, charisma and electricity made her immensely watchable, a little minx to compare with timid Nina - the black swan and the white swan arm in arm (or, er, tongue in tongue?). Her presence was the most interesting as she has the most profound effect upon the main star: Nina recognises that she has to become more like Lily to fully immerse herself as the black swan, yet she is simultaneously terrified that Lily is trying to become her, and take over her life and take over the role as Swan Queen. There's a lot of trickery going on here: faces and bodies interchanging, false events occurring - when is Nina Nina, and when is Nina Lily? Does Lily even exist? (this is where people start getting out their magnifying glasses and repeat watching the film, re-watching scenes again once they know the truth) I don't think it's as complex as people want to make out, though I'm sure Aronofsky is keeping tight lipped (with a wry smile) to let the interpreters sprout their theories. Once you know the ending I think the scenes between Lily and Nina are all the more powerful and shocking, and they add greater depth and unease to what you have just been watching.
Winona Ryder is also worth a mention - she's been garnering the most mixed reactions for her casting as an embittered and tragic ballerina on the cusp of anonymity - but she actually brings the biggest jumps in the film, and I think she's brilliantly unhinged.
Which brings me to Miss Natalie (soon to be Mrs Millepied - her beau was actually in this a lot more than I thought). This is by far the most she has ever given as an actress, the most transformed I have ever seen her. What impressed me the most was that she is in literally every scene of the film, and she never once falters. My favourite moments were when she steals herself after breaking down - when she has killed Lily, and the call comes for her to go on stage, watching her pull her frantic trembling features together to the dogged poise of a performer was genius. She also really committed to the genre of the film, the crazy over-the-top melodrama of it: perfectly formed O's as she clamps her hands to her face and runs screaming to tear down the posters that are tormenting her, and the childlike bewitching of her face as she waits for death to take her at the end in her moment of 'perfection'. She is stunningly brilliant, and deserves all the praise she is getting - now I've finally seen the film I can watch the award ceremonies with a lot more emotion, and a lot more sweat!
Black Swan has been compared to many things since it came out: The Red Shoes, All About Eve, Brian de Palma, Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler, David Lynch, Showgirls, Fight Club, David Cronenberg, Rosemary's Baby... ironically I found it closest in tone to Suspiria, the film everyone thought Natalie was re-making anyway when she was spotted taking ballet lessons and having meetings with David Gordon Green (they were discussing Your Highness, of course). It's far from perfect, with it being too outrageously ludicrous at times - I nearly had a mini crisis when she thought she had killed Lily, but the way they brought it back was amazing. (Incidentally, I know a lot of people are incredulous as to how she could have danced two acts with a stab wound, but I dismiss this: dancers fight through pain all the time, and Nina was transfixed, in another body, and she did not even feel the wound. It's a little silly at the end when she has blood all over her stomach before they realise something's wrong, but hey, this film is a little silly!) There have been many complaints about the script, but there were only a few occasions when I found it horribly gauche - it was these moments when the audience I was in, for right or for wrong, giggled a lot. Black Swan is going to seem incredibly hokey to many people, I know that, and again as many people have said, to fully enjoy it you have to buy into it and strap yourself on for the ride. But what works in the film and Aronofsky's favour is that the film knows exactly what it wants to be, and where it wants to go: the cast are on board, and it's a full-on night at the travelling freakshow. It doesn't feel fake, or misguided - it's beautifully, utterly bonkers.
You HAVE to go and see it. It's not just coming from me as a Natalie fan (I still think Garden State is her podium) but as a lover of cinema, and just to be naturally curious, you have to sit through the spectacle that is Black Swan. Because it's exciting, it's something to define your day with, and whatever you think of it when you stumble out of the cinema, it's truly unforgettable.
*initially I was going to give this four-four and a half cheeses but I changed my mind - because of how it's stayed with me over the last couple of days, I think it earns its five cheeses. I need to go and see it again on my own to really work out how I feel about it. But I think I'm only going to love it more than to change my mind the other way.