Friday, January 21, 2011

Black Swan

Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel.

Rating: 10/10

Darren Aronofsky’s powerful new horror/thriller/melodrama is truly in a class of its own and proves yet again that he is one of the world’s most reliably imaginative, fearless and powerful film directors. After the admittedly underwhelming The Fountain, Aronofsky followed up with the stripped bare, no punches pulled The Wrestler which was a feat of restraint and nuance which triumphed as a touching tale of the lengths that performers will go to not to leave the prime of their career behind. In The Wrestler, Aronofsky deals with an ageing wrestler who refuses to give up despite his train-wreck of a body begging him to give it a break. In Black Swan he tackles a ballerina in the prime of her life, just reaching the pinnacle of her much-sought “perfection” which is taking its toll not only on her body but on her mental health also.

Nina is a ballerina, the daughter of an obsessed former ballerina, and she has worked her whole life to be “the best”. She is the perfect daughter, beautiful, polite, subservient and modest. She works hard and is insecure about her social skills but tries to get along with people as best she can. She dreams (literally) about playing The Swan Queen in Swan Lake, every ballerina’s dream no doubt and as it happens her ballet company’s former star, Beth (Ryder) retires and leaves a space for a new star to emerge. Thomas (Cassel), the leering genius choreographer, believes she is a perfect White Swan but doesn’t believe that she has the depth, darkness or sensuality to play the Black Swan, an evil seductress. Deep down she knows he’s right and what follows is Nina’s desperate foray into the dark side of her soul, one which has been so neglected that it has become dangerously repressed.

If David Cronenberg did women’s pictures he might just have given us Black Swan. Almost everything about this is classic David Cronenberg; the duality that becomes more and more trippy; the focus on the body as a fallible and often grotesque instrument of obsession; the endeavour for progress that ultimately brings about the downfall of the hero. This territory has been tread by Cronenberg in such films as The Fly, Videodrome and Dead Ringers. However, with Cronenbergs other notable penchant being masculinity, there’s no room for him in this film. Black Swan is in every way a film about being a woman; in the most volatile, dark, hideous form of femininity. Almost everything about the protagonist, Nina encapsulates the absolute worst aspects of womanhood. The insecurities, the pressure to control one’s own body, the thin line between Madonna and whore, the ugliness that comes with the pursuit of perfection. I’m not accusing this film of misogyny, but the grotesque darkness underpinning Nina’s journey is certainly an inherently female one.

As ugly as it is beautiful, Darren Aronofsky has sculpted a story here that is so profoundly horrific that it amazed me that it hasn’t been told before. The less said about the plot, the better as the “plot” is fairly thin. There’s not much by way of story, it is more a beautiful exercise in atmosphere and a dark fairytale about obsession and repression. Natalie Portman puts on the performance of a lifetime here and earns the Oscar nomination (and probably win) she will inevitably receive. She is in turns transcendently beautiful, frighteningly ugly, off-puttingly child-like and darkly sexy, depending on the scene. Her body is put through the mill to impossible lengths and she is so skinny she starts to look skeletal in parts. This is a flawless performance and it can’t be overstated how important the central performance is for this film to work. Kudos must also go to the supporting cast who plays their small roles with gusto. Vincent Cassel is a wonderfully believable menace and Winona Ryder’s fading star is wicked and soulful and Mila Kunis is a giddy, sexual delight in a role in which charisma is so important. Barbara Hershey is truly upsetting as Nina’s nightmarish stage mother. It is easy to feel the intense mix of love and fear in their household and the genuine tenderness mixed with regimental bullying.

This is a perfect production on every level. The music, Clint Mansell's aural raping of Tchaikovsky is deeply unsettling, ugly enough to complement the film's darkness and beautiful enough to evoke real emotion in the audience. The visuals are simply stunning and the energy with which the film is shot ensures that you will spend most of the film beside yourself in the grip of terror and just general unease.

Black Swan is a stunner of a film. Frightening, tender and eloquent; it is a visual poem of epic proportions about one girl’s meltdown told from a stunningly intimate viewpoint. A story told from the inside out, and one which manages successfully to keep you on board in the most devastating fashion until long after the credits rolled.

 - Charlene Lydon


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