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Black Swan (DVD)
Member Name: LeeRobertAdams
Black Swan (DVD)
Advantages: Unbearably tense and claustrophobic; some excellent performances.
Disadvantages: All surface flash - virtually nothing beneath the moody style.
I have some friends who would rate "Black Swan" five stars simply because it features a scene where Natalie Portman gets licked out by her evil twin; and, perhaps if I was part of Fox Searchlight's marketing department and was targeting a certain demographic, I might even get that in the tag line somehow.
As I'm sure you're aware, "Black Swan", Darren Aronofsky's much-hyped companion piece to 2008's "The Wrestler" was one of the most eagerly awaited, talked about and critically acclaimed films of last year.
Despite all the award nominations the film received, "Black Swan" rides on the back of "The Wrestler"s almost unanimous goodwill and respect, and is an inferior film; it's certainly an entertaining, atmospheric psychological thriller, but starts off in the realms of Polanski's "Repulsion", and ends up more like Dario Argento's "Suspiria." In other words, it's actually an intense, hysterical, bonkers piece of schlock dressed up as a serious Oscar-contending character study.
Natalie Portman's Oscar winning turn sees her as Nina Sayers, a brittle and beautiful young dancer for an illustrious New York ballet company. The company is gearing up for a fresh, modern take on Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake", and the arrogant and charismatic Director, Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new Swan Queen.
Nina is devoted to her craft and practises incessantly at home in front of the mirror; she lives in an apartment with her mum, Erica (Barbara Hershey) who was also a ballet dancer before she fell pregnant with Nina. The mother and daughter have a rather suffocating, touchy-feely relationship that feels a bit unhealthy, particularly with Erica's extra edge, pushing Nina to succeed where she didn't. She's like an ultra competitive "Soccer Mom" crossed with Norman Bates's Old Dear.
Nina is a contender for the Swan Queen role she craves, although has a problem - Thomas acknowledges she is perfect for the part of the pristine, virginal White Swan, but lacks the sensuality in her dancing to convince as the passionate Black Swan.
That side of the role seems more suited to one of Nina's rival dancers, Lily (Mila Kunis), who is everything Nina isn't - a carefree, promiscuous wildcat, who is not afraid to invest her innate eroticism into her dancing.
The ballet company is portrayed as a tense, bitchy, ambitious group of young women, and as Nina is seduced by Thomas and works her way into the role, she also draws venom from the company's previous principle dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), an over the hill ballerina forced into retirement by the enigmatic director.
As the pressure of attaining this prestigious role takes it's toll on Nina's already fragile state of mind, she begins to suffer hallucinations, as she starts to catch glimpses of a dark doppleganger apparently dogging her footsteps.
Aronofksy uses virtually the same technique here as in "The Wrestler" - he sticks a handheld camera behind the central character, and follows them around through their daily lives. This technique puts the viewer right in the character's personal bubble - with Randy the Ram, we were so close to the aging wrestler we could hear his grunts and laboured breathing, smell the peroxide in his hair and the jockstrap stench of the crowded locker rooms he got changed in, and almost feel the creak of his protesting muscles.
Here, the technique is far more uncomfortable - it's one thing following around a well-pumped man, not adverse to getting slammed through a table covered in drawing pins to entertain the crowd, but another breathing over the shoulder of a petite, frail young woman.
It's far more voyeuristic, which means during the sex scenes, the viewer is also right in on the act, and in the context of a psychological thriller, it is effective building a sense of dread - we're so close to Nina that we can't see anything that might be about to jump out on her.
This quiet, insistent feeling of menace it beautifully sustained for the first two acts of the film, with a few jolts thrown in for good measure - Aronofsky embraces the use of mirrors for cheap scares, as well as hammering home the theme of evil double images.
Unlike "The Wrestler", "Black Swan" betrays it's super-confident, ice cool exterior and feels more like an amalgam of previous films - Aronofsky pays homage to the Powell-Pressburger masterpiece "The Red Shoes" with a 360 POV whip-pan borrowed directly from the earlier film; there's a shock cut to Nina's mum at an unexpected moment that recalls Hitchcock's reveal of Mrs Bates in "Psycho"'; and a bathtub scene that feels simultaneously like a moment in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or from the underrated Pfieffer/Ford shriekfest "What Lies Beneath".
The performances are mostly excellent - Natalie Portman brings her usual intelligence and frosty sexuality to the role of Nina. Portman is one of the most fearless contemporary actresses at work in Hollywood these days, unafraid to tackle adult roles, be it in the inconsequential sex comedy "No Strings Attached"or as a stripper in Mike Nichols' "Closer".
She's thoroughly believable as the ambitious, feeble-minded Nina, although the role feels rather linear and two dimensional - Nina goes from focussed to frustrated to turned on to shrill, shrill, shriller.
Cassel is typically intense as the egotistic and charismatic LeRoy - it's hard to believe is over fifteen years since he seared his image on the screen in 1995's "La Haine". LeRoy is a man of passionate perfection, big ideas and flashy concepts, and is an unapologetic predator of the beautiful young women in his control. Cassel believably makes LeRoy the type of arrogant, romantic rogue of an older man young girls would fall for.
Kunis makes the most of a limited role as the fun-loving, uninhibited Lily, endowing the character with an undercurrent of vulnerability and hard knocks wisdom that the naive Nina is drawn to and envies.
Hershey has the unforgiving nutty mum role, which means she acts like a woman dangerously in love with her child, cloying and controlling, and probably drinks too much when she's by herself. I've already mentioned Mrs Bates - the other movie mum she resembles when she's around is Sissy Spacek's mother in "Carrie", played by Piper Laurie.
There's very little room for breath in "Black Swan" as it builds and builds towards it's frantic, hysterical, schizophrenic final third. In the meantime, we can also draw further comparisons with the superior "Wrestler", and ballet and wrestling generally - the punishment placed on the body to acquire the physical and aesthetic perfection each profession demands; the artifice and performance of both dramas; the desire to be wanted and to please the audience, the almost pathological dependency on the crowd's approval.
"Black Swan" is not a perfect film by any means, but has the weight and confidence as well as the visceral thrills to make it as close as you get to a must watch these days.
Basic Information -
Black Swan (2010) - USA
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Formats: DVD, Blu-Ray
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Music: Clint Mansell, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Nina Sayers: Natalie Portman
Thoma LeRoy: Vincent Cassel
Erica Sayers: Barbara Hershey
Average Rating on MRQE: 80
(Posted on Ciao! as Midwinter.)
Summary: A perfect Friday night watch-from-behind-the-sofa flick - just don't expect it to change your life.