Posts Tagged ‘Black Swan’

If you are the kind of parent who is constantly harangued by a daughter declaring her desire to become the world’s greatest ballet dancer, and how this makes it your duty to fulfil their dream no matter the personal inconvenience or expense, then on one level you could do a lot worse than to stick them in front of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. This should cure almost anyone of wanting to get into ballet. On the other hand, it’s probably also capable of massively traumatising the average child (and possibly some adults), so if you do go down this route don’t come back to me complaining if it all goes horribly wrong.

Anyway. Aronofsky’s multiply-award-nominated movie is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a neurotically-perfectionist ballerina with a company in New York. Opportunity comes a-knocking when she is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake, despite the doubts of her director (Vincent Cassel) that she has the necessary emotional range for the part. Nina’s struggle with the role is complicated by her relationships with her clinging, obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), and an ambitious, hedonistic rival (Mila Kunis). To succeed she finds she must summon dark forces from within herself, forces that refuse to stay under her control…

If you attempt to make a film about ballet then, whether you like it or not, you’re going to wind up getting compared to The Red Shoes, the big mama of all ballet films. It’s a rule, what can I say? Being a painstaking sort of person I dug out my DVD of Red Shoes (not a particular favourite of mine, I have to say, but it came in a boxed set) prior to watching Black Swan just to see how the two compared.

Well, obviously, on one level the two films are the products of utterly different sensibilities – even without rewatching it, I think I would have recalled that the Powell and Pressburger film did not feature quite such striking levels of profanity, vomit, self-harm, drug abuse, masturbation, and lesbian oral sex (hang on, though, it’s not quite as good as I’m probably making it sound). But what the two films share is the theme of the price of making great art, partly embodied through the figure of the director of the company – Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) in the old movie, Thomas (Cassel) in the new one, though the characters are quite different in other ways.

While The Red Shoes is a fairly traditional narrative for the most part, Black Swan is a much more internal movie, about the psychological burden placed on Nina, who’s at the centre of virtually every scene (and the camera’s very seldom more than about three feet from Natalie Portman’s head). Even so, the performances in this movie are uniformly strong – though I suppose in theory you could argue that this movie is actually slightly misogynistic, given that every major female character either has somewhat loose morals or is a borderline wacko. Barbara Hershey (possibly the only character actress in the world to have a regular character in Judge Dredd named after her) is particularly good as Nina’s creepy mum, while Winona Ryder is literally unrecognisable as an aging, fading prima ballerina.

Gentlemen readers: you may want to wind your DVDs on about seven minutes from this scene.

It’s Portman’s movie, really, though. She hasn’t always realised the extraordinary promise that was there right from her debut in Leon, and indeed for a while a few years ago she even struggled to bring out all the subtlety and nuance in George Lucas’s Star Wars scripts (I forgot to mention that this review may contain irony), but here she’s utterly magnetic from beginning to end, even if she does spend most of the movie wearing a face like a rictus mask of anguish. With consummate skill she manages a pitfall-strewn path, beginning the movie as someone with definite issues. As it progresses, of course, she goes completely and convincingly bonkers.

As, to be honest, does the rest of the movie. This starts off as a fairly realistic and low-key drama, one that doesn’t (for example) shy away from showing the punishing demands ballet dancers make on their bodies. But slowly and gradually there are little eruptions of weirdness into the film, which becomes increasingly intense and claustrophobic. By the closing sequences, it’s become almost phantasmagorical, with drama, melodrama, fantasy and horror bleeding into one another. The final impression is almost overwhelming, as acting, direction, cinematography and CGI come together in an extraordinary crescendo.

The Oscar nominations came out this week and I get the sense that Black Swan is sort of in the second rank of movies, chasing The Social Network and The King’s Speech for the big prizes. Not that I really think the Oscars, or any other awards, actually mean anything, but I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that, overall: but Aronofsky’s direction and Portman’s performance are both unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the cinema in a long time. Parts of Black Swan will remain burned into my brain for a long time (and not just the bit you’re probably thinking of) – it’s a remarkable, memorable movie, even if it’s not always the easiest one to watch.

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