The personal cost of ambition and desire is viscerally explored in Darren Aronofsky's latest feature
Psychological thriller Black Swan is the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, a companion piece to his 2008 hit The Wrestler, perhaps, which presents an unflinching and dramatic depiction of the personal cost of ambition and desire within the ballet industry.
Whereas The Wrestler internalised the struggle between professional aspiration and personal sacrifice, as embodied in the character of Randy, in Black Swan this struggle is externalised as one eager young ballet dancer fights with herself and those around her in a bid to attain 'perfection'.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, the principal dancer in a New York ballet company which is to perform a contemporary version of Swan Lake. The role of the Swan Queen is two fold, requiring the performer to be both socially naive and sexually confident. Nina is the personification of the White Swan, but must lose her innocent demeanour to reveal the Black Swan within.
As Nina is pulled towards madness - her sociopathic mother and jealous fellow dancers don't help much there - haunted by the malevolent phantom of the darker version of herself, she is torn between the shy, good-natured innocence of the White Swan and the reckless abandon of the Black Swan.
Nina struggles to become what her role requires her to be, and in the end her perceived physical transformation is gruesome and disturbing.
So far Portman's dynamic and provocative central performance has earned her a Golden Globe, and the original take on Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece from composer Clint Mansell has also garnered industry acclaim.
Although Portman will certainly be in the running for the best actress gong at the Academy Awards, her performance has split opinion in ballet circles, however: should Aronofsky have cast a professional dancer in the role?
In attempting to penetrate the mystique surrounding the ballet community, Aronofsky can perhaps be forgiven for emphasising and exaggerating the more negative aspects of the ballet profession: the infighting, the paranoia, the physical injuries that dancers endure. If nothing else, Black Swan raises the issue of freedom of expression and artistic licence in the cinema and the moral implications in exercising it responsibly.
Black Swan is indeed a dance macabre, elegant and engaging, with hypnotic visuals and an atmospheric score that complements a memorable performance from Portman. The psycho-sexual, David Lynch-type plot, however, is both confusing and frustrating (for this reviewer, at least). But then, that is what Aronofsky always intended it to be. It remains to be seen whether or not Oscar will be impressed.