Sunday, 6 February 2011

Black Swan - bonkers doesn't even cut it...

Certificate: 15
Duration: 108 minutes
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershley, Winona Ryder

Black Swan is the latest film from Darren Aronofsky and has rather interestingly divided audiences like marmite. Some have seen it as a powerful thriller with disturbing elements of a psychological horror, whilst others have written it off as a laughable melodrama, that takes itself way too seriously to be actually considered serious at all. This hasn’t stopped the film from collecting several nominations in the run up to the award season of course, with Natalie Portman and Aronofsky all up for the most prestigious accolades. Take from that what you will.    

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young professional ballerina for the New York City Ballet School. She leads a highly disciplined and sheltered lifestyle, with her ever so slightly domineering mother (Barbara Hershley). In an attempt to raise interest in the ballet school, director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) wants to put on a daring version of Swan Lake, where the two opposing characters of the white and black swan are played by the same dancer. Desperate for the part, Nina auditions for the part, only to be told that whilst she can effortlessly encapsulate the white swan, as an icon of virtue and chastity, she is not well suited to the role of black swan, which requires a far more darker and imperfect edge to portray. Regardless, Nina is selected for the role after Leroy catches a glimpse of her when he tries to have his way with her. Much work is needed though and in order to dance as the black swan, Nina must effectively become the black swan and step out of her highly regulated comfort zone and embrace the dark side, if you’ll excuse the reference. Unfortunately for Nina, she will have to do much more than go out clubbing on a school night and getting touched up by Vincent Cassel in order to become the Black Swan. She will have to undergo a literal and harrowing psychological transformation, all in the name of perfection and pleasing all those god awful high brow cultural snobs out there.  

Remember kids. No means No.
Black Swan has been widely regarded as the spiritual sequel to Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler released in 2009 famously starring Mickey Rouke as a washed out wrestler, a role which conveniently mirrored the actors own unfortunate background. Indeed, both movies share a lot of similarities, those scenes in The Wrestler particularly in regards to the staples reveal the pain the wrestlers put themselves through to give the audience a show. Black Swan similarly reveals how the dancers, particularly Natalie Portman’s character suffer for their art, through split toe nails and bone cracking physiotherapy sessions. Some critics have called Black Swan the feminine version of the Wrestler, with both movies featuring characters who exist in a performative space. It isn’t strictly true because those who did see the Wrestler will remember Marisa Tomei’s character Cassidy, a stripper, who is basically acts as a feminine version of Mickey Rourke’s character.  If we are to draw a distinction between the two movies, Black Swan deals with performing characters at the level of high art, whilst The Wrestler deals with the lower end of the cultural spectrum. Black Swan is about the attainment of perfection, whilst the Wrestler is about faking it.

I don’t really know much about ballet, my only previous engagement with the medium is probably watching Billy Elliot, which also features Swan Lake at the very end. Whilst Black Swan features Swan Lake it also uses it as a template, using the plot as a vehicle for Nina’s own personal metamorphoses and when you watch it like this, the film is a much more satisfying experience. It is also for this reason that the movie becomes very predictable, as life imitates art or art imitates life for an explosive finale. Whilst some have described the movie as a ‘mindfuck’, Black Swan is very easy to follow and understand.    

Black Swan has a fairly strong cast throughout. Natalie Portman is the main crux for the entire movie and is wholly believable as a pint sized ballerina, a perfectionist who lives for her art so narrow mindedly. Mila Kunis who stars as a fellow dancer in the movie, is well played representing everything Nina is not. A muse of sorts and most importantly a natural fit for the black swan being far more sexually liberated than Nina. I did have one problem with Kunis’ character… The actress is most famous for providing the voice for Meg in family guy. A character so abhorred and disliked by the cartoon’s audience, that the creators themselves are obliged to write her off as an unsympathetic hate figure. Turning up every so often to receive a tirade of abuse. So everytime Mila Kunis is on the screen, I’m instinctively like ‘shut up Meg’.  And I know, that isn’t very critic savvy of me but hey ho, its just what I felt. The other characters are pretty good, Vincent Cassel as the manly patriarch of the ballet school is a strong and dominating presence even if the film is slightly unsure on how to play him, either as an inspirational teacher or a sexual predator. Winona Ryder is also in the movie and… well lets just say she can do crazy very well. 

The main problem I had with the movie is that it is absolutely bonkers. Which is also perhaps why I actually quite liked it. Thematically it can be described as a psychological thriller because it has all the traits of the genre, but how it executes them is sometimes so over the top and laugh out loud funny, there is a very real danger of wetting yourself. Perhaps it is the only way to do a thriller set in the highly emotionally charged world of professional ballet, this is in contrast to The Wrestler which was very subtle, grounded with a clear sense of realism.  Some scenes are supposed to be funny, for instance in one scene Cassel’s character with all his French roguery orders Nina to go home and masturbate in attempts to loosen her up a bit, and unlock the inner black swan within. Which sure enough leads up into a full on masturbatory scene, which is guaranteed to have audiences rolling in the aisles. In other places the film is unintentionally funny especially in regards to the ways it handles the horror dimension, usually involving Nina catching glimpses of her evil doppelganger here and there. In particular, there is a fight scene towards the end which I couldn’t help feel owed much to a sequence in Happy Gilmore. 

Is your reflection turning against you? Perhaps you're insane too!
Whilst some people like myself may have the film spoiled by the intense melodrama, others are guaranteed to buy into the story completely. I just felt that with some of the moments, Aronofsky was reaching out of the scream and slapping everybody in the face, as if saying “Come on its just a movie, don’t take it so seriously, I want an easy oscar!” When leaving the theatre, I overheard a lot of people saying how marvelous and shocking the film was.  Whilst nothing is as shocking as events from Aronofsky’s other movie Requiem for a Dream.

In conclusion, Black Swan is an interesting enough movie to go out and see at the cinema. Suffice it to say, despite all the film’s inherent silliness, the ballet scenes are really good and deserve to be seen on the big screen. In summation Black Swan is a story that can be interpreted in many different ways. It is about the loss of innocence and how one young lady attempts to define herself within a world which can only objectify her in one of two ways. The white swan and the black swan, the virgin and the harlot. Neither of which are very substantial.  Even though it is a film about ballet, Portman’s character still very much exists within a man’s world, under the dominion of Vincent Cassel’s school director. It is also a film about art and the pursuit for perfection.  And of course, if you are still unconvinved, if you still don't find yourself interested with all this high fallutin’ talk about art and feminism then you might be interested in knowing that the film also contains a full on lesbian sex scene between Portman and Kunis...

Zang! And that is probably a decent point to end on. 

It'll be alright on the night!

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