Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Black Swan

2010. Dir: Darren Aronofsky. Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. ●●●●●

It's all too easy to forget that cinema is an art form, we tend to imagine the studios heads sitting in overlit offices with fawning assistants, counting the box office receipts of whatever Transformer shaped dreck they've unleased to the public as a coked-out pimp would guard his wares. Even those of us who profess a love of arthouse cinema, with our badly subtitled Albanian propaganda that quietly destroys beourgeois family values whilst simultaneously propping up our intellectually elitist worldview, have been fooled by false prophets of the human spirit. But this study of artistic desire, this interlude in the mind of performer, this screeching, screaming "were-swan" pushes past the boundaries of the screen, boldly pronouncing "I AM ART"! Black Swan is the first film I've seen for a long time that cannot be judged against normal rules; it's as much an installation as a movie.

That's it. Rave over. The hyperbole is done with. My point though is Black Swan enters your conciousness in a way few films do. I've not seen all of the films that made it to the Academy's top ten yesterday, but I doubt Swan will be my favourite, however it will be the one I remember for longer. Certain images, themes and moments within the movie will stay ingrained in my head, so visceral is the experience I felt I was up there with Natalie Portman's Nina executing every pirouette forcing my way through the dance.

You see it's impossible: to describe it is to relive the moment.

Portman's Nina gets a surprise bump up the pecking order of her ballet troupe, cast in the dual role of the Swan Queen and Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet Swan Lake. Vincent Cassel as her director/choreographer and would-be lover taunts her inability to unlock the passion of the Black Swan, to overthrough the virginal perfection of her dancing and awaken the inner desires. Enter Mila Kunis as her rival, a dancer able to fully show the passion of the Black Swan, unhindered by the desperation to please.

It is this desperation that fuels the story, the layer upon layer of agony and mental torment that Nina puts herself through. Slowly destroying her body through excessive practice and relentless acts of self-harm and bulimia. When the opening night comes we hear every cracking bone, every heaving breath as Nina forces her way through the performance, like her natural counterparts we are treated to the excessive underwater effort whilst the audience see only the gentle majesty of the whole. Nina wants to be admired, she seeks the gratification of the applause and internally vows to prove the doubters, the other dancers, the lothario Cassel, her own bitter and poisonous mother, icily performed by Barbara Hershey, even when cooing over her "sweet, sweet girl".

None of the cast miss their marks, and Portman especially gives a career best performance fully realisng the emotional journey of her doomed heroine.

There are elements that don't work, the script overeggs the pudding reminder us again and again of the themes, and Winona Ryder's passed over Prima Ballerina Beth seems to exist purely to underline old cliches repeated in far too many ballet movies, but these cannot take away from the superb mix of sound and image.

Matthew Libatique upclose hand held cinematography enters the world created by David Stein's art direction and Amy Westcott's costumes, at the same time the layering of sound, dialogue and Matt Dunkley and Clint Mansell's arrangements of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece ensure every moment fits together even when we're clearly left the natural world.

But all of this leads to Darren Aronofsky. It's an achievement that cannot be overstated, he has directed a piece of art, he sought perfection, and that alone makes it worth seeing.


TomS said...

What a superb review, Ben. Weeks after seeing this film I still see images vivdly in my mind's eye. This is what modern film can aspire to more if those in control had the vision and the courage.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Thank you.