The final film in Flixist’s London Film Festival coverage will also be director Darron Aronofsky’s last before moving into the realm of big-budget Hollywood productions with the next Wolverine movie. Although it could be taken as a positive sign of the studios aiming to raise the quality of their blockbusters, it’s difficult to see Aronofsky’s fans greeting the news with much joy: directors with strong voices have often struggled to reconcile their artistic impulses with the commercial interests of financiers. David Lynch’s troubles on Dune in 1984 serves as the most infamous warning, while Terry Gilliam’s entire career has been a battle between a determined vision and the suits upstairs.
Although successful, Aronofsky’s filmography is not replete with the kinds of projects with mainstream appeal that allowed Christopher Nolan or Bryan Singer to make a smoother transition. His work has proven divisive, attracting a fanbase as devoted as his detractors. My experience of him has so far been limited to The Fountain, a film whose self-congratulatory cod-spirituality I found vacuous to the point of loathing.
Black Swan has just as much opportunity for affected posturing, centring around the world of ballet and the suffering of the artist in pursuit of perfection. Perhaps Aronofsky once again believes he has made a work of art. But he hasn’t: this film is trash, pure and simple.
And if there’s one thing I love above all else, it’s trash cinema. Black Swan is a fully fledged giallo, of the kind that would send Dario Argento or Mario Bava into paroxysms of joy at the peak of their powers. All it’s lacking is a killer sporting leather gloves and a more fragrant title, like ‘The Devil Swan In The Ballerina’s Blood’ or perhaps ‘La Cigna Dalla Piume Di Negra’. Aronofsky throws every other staple of the genre at the screen: protagonists walking the tightrope of insanity, a mystery to be solved, simmering sexual rivalry between female leads (one virgin, one slut), sexually manipulative mentors, overbearing mothers, an unsettlingly twisted soundtrack, stark colour schemes and screaming bloodstains… Black Swan is drenched in exploitation. I adored every second of it.
For those unfamiliar, gialli (giallo in the singular) are Italian pulp horror mysteries, usually containing elements of the supernatural or psychological and laced with softcore erotica. The name comes from the vivid yellow covers of the cheap paperback publications that inspired the films, starting as adaptations but quickly becoming a popular national genre in its own right.
Black Swan takes a handful of its story cues from Dario Argento’s breakout giallo Suspiria. Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina determined to win the respect of her mentor and company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who is set to announce the new lead in a production of Swan Lake after the company’s previous star Beth (Winona Ryder) was pushed into retirement. But while Nina’s technique is flawless and sweet nature an ideal fit for the part of the White Swan, she is unable to convey the dark seductiveness required for the second half of the performance as the Black Swan. The dancing of rival Lily (Mila Kunis) is less refined but embodies all the qualities she lacks. Thomas takes a chance and gives her the role, but as the date of the performance draws near, Nina (whose emotional instability is already evident at the beginning of the film) becomes increasingly paranoid that Lily is conspiring against her to take over the part.
Aronofsky packs his film with doubles, reflections and echoes. The graceful beauty of ballet is contrasted against the bone-crunching pains it takes to achieve that level of perfection. Nina is haunted by a dark doppelgänger everywhere she goes as she seeks to summon her untapped sexuality. In her obsessive mother and fallen star Beth, she sees the potential cost of a total devotion to her art. Fellow dancer Lily becomes key to her success, a hedonistic role model who is the only person capable of bringing out the passions that her dancing so desperately needs, but potentially also the conniving agent of her downfall.
The dialogue is often farcically obvious, with characters directly stating every thought that passes through their heads, but this doesn’t matter in the slightest. This is a film about the intensity of the experience, not subtlety of technique. Aronofsky’s direction evokes Argento, Kubrick and Polanski, with a few visual references to Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. His camera hangs off Nina’s shoulder and sucks the audience into her increasingly tortured psyche. Tension escalates from beginning to end to near-unbearable levels without a moment’s respite. Colours and sound effects are exaggerated to such levels of violence that the pink walls of Nina’s bedroom, once symbolising her innocence, become a suffocating prison, while clipped nails and flexing foot joints snap like splintering bones. In an atmosphere dense with threat and reverberating to composer Clint Mansell’s kaleidoscope refractions of Tchaikovsky, Nina makes a terrifyingly gaunt and vulnerable guide, stimulating simultaneous desires to both protect and get away from her.
In the lead role, Portman is a mesmerising presence. It has been easy to forget what an accomplished actress she can be given the terrible films her name has been associated with in recent years, but she fearlessly throws herself body and soul into Nina in a way that hasn’t been seen from her since Léon. The resulting performance is at once thrilling and terrifying, her diminutive frame electrifying the screen with every twitch and gasp and scream. Like Nina, she is playing a dual role, often embodying both sides of the character in conflict with each other at the same time, and is transfixing to watch. It will be a disgrace if she doesn’t win every award the part is eligible for over the next six months.
Both she and Kunis dance beautifully and without breaking character – Nina moves with a fiercely disciplined elegance where Lily’s arms and legs flow with an hypnotic wildness as though enacting elaborate foreplay. When instructor Thomas comments on their dancing, we can see exactly what he means in the actresses’ performances. Vincent Cassel’s smouldering snarl will have female hearts pounding for days after the credits have rolled and no doubt inspire countless recreations of Nina’s homework assignments.
The giallo experience should combine the beautiful with the corrupt, as intoxicating and fetishistically thrilling as sucking dry a bleeding wound. Whether intentionally or not, Aronofsky captures this atmosphere better than any director since the genre’s Seventies heyday. Supercharged by the performance of any actor’s lifetime from Portman, Black Swan crackles with the lurid intensity of the greatest exploitation experiences. Should his voice be quashed by big-budget studio filmmaking, Aronofsky’s fanbase can at least find great consolation that he has left them with an incontrovertible tour de force. In a cinematic year where passion and originality have largely gone lacking, this is a show not to be missed.