Black Swan (2010): Repulsion in a Tutu

Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie PortmanMila Kunis and Vincent Cassel with knock out performances in smaller supporting roles by Barbara Hershey (as Mum) and Winona Ryder (as Last Years Girl) Black Swan  grabbed you by your metaphorical lapels and shook the hell out of you.

When I watched this film, I instantly thought two things. Firstly, that Black Swan made me think of Roman Polanski‘s    Repulsionand secondly that this was a “coming of age” film. Although at twenty-eight Portman’s character was a little too old to be reaching ‘self awareness’, but after watching her relationship with her mother, you can see why it has taken so long.

The plot in a nutshell is this: Girl is in a ballet company. The company decides their next performance will be of the Black Swan. Girl auditions for the lead in Black Swan. The director pushes the girl to explore her ‘dark’ side as the lead for Black Swan must be Apollonian and Dionysian in turns. In other words the lead must be both the white swan and the black swan. Girl experiences a lot of mental problems in her pursuit of self awareness. Girl gets the lead role. Girl performs.

The plot sound pretty innocuous but it packs a mean punch. Like Polanski’s Repulsion, Black Swan shows us the mental deterioration that is occurring in Portman’s character ( Nina Sayers) in her quest for the darkness in her soul.

Nina is obsessed with giving the perfect performance, period. She spends all her energy on getting everything technically perfect and as the White Swan she is just that, perfect. But the director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) tries to explain to Nina that perfection is not enough, that she needs passion and abandonment for the dual role. He shows her Lily (Mila Kunis) a new member of the ballet company. Lily’s performance shows fire and passion and reckless abandonment. This, he tells Nina, is what she must achieve.

Where this film excels is in showing us why Nina is so repressed.  Her mother, played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, is scarily obsessed with her daughter and her career. Mother has controlled Nina’s life with the goal of Nina succeeding where mum failed. Mother is constantly reminding Nina that it was her birth that destroyed her career. Little wonder then, that at twenty-eight, Nina is obviously still a virgin.

Nina begins hanging around with the Dionysian Lily in the hope that she can find her own passion. After a night out on the town, the two girls wind up having lesbian sex in Nina’s bedroom. Or do they? As the film progresses, we begin to question what is real and what is imagined by Nina. Some scene we know are real.

The scene where Nina, after being told by her director to go home and “touch” herself, wakes up in the morning and begins to masturbate. As she comes closer to a climax, she twists her head and see’s her mother sitting in a chair by her bed, asleep. Nina’s reaction is one of horrifying embarrassment. Her passion is gone as if she’d been dowsed in ice water and the fact that her mother could have caught her masturbating is mortifying.  This scene we know is all too real and we cringe at the notion of Nina’s almost being caught by mum.

Other scenes cannot be real, Nina’s fixation with last years Black Swan,  Beth Macintyre  (played brilliantly by Winona Ryder) with the resultant effect of Nina seeing Beth in her house and during her lesbian sex session with Lily. These sightings can only be in Nina’s mind.

As a psychological horror film, Black Swan hits the nail so firmly on the head, that I was “creeped out” for three days after I watched it. I also took showers for the next three days, I was a bit leery of the bathtub after seeing the movie.

This is a “must-see” film. Set in the world of Ballet, it is about losing yourself and your mind. About what is real and what is not. It’s also about disturbing you and getting under your skin.

About Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, vlogger, blogger, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, YouTube shows, Books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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