Monday, 25 October 2010

London Film Festival: Black Swan

With all these screenings it’s my intention to blog about the films as quickly as possible, and give an emotional response without over-thinking the piece.

This feels particularly right with Black Swan which is, at its core, a film about control and release. Aranofksy’s fifth feature is built around the purest notions of cinema and tells a deceptively simple story through image, sound and atmospherics. The cinematography really takes on the level of a central character in this film, which is a sonic and visual feast: a true cineaste’s movie.

Natalie Portman (on riveting form here) plays Nina, an intense, committed prima ballerina and rising star within a highly prestigious New York dance company.

Nina is obsessed with landing the role of the swan queen in their new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassell, saturnine as ever) is not quite convinced. He knows Nina can handle the physical demands of the role and would make a perfect white queen, but has serious misgivings about this girl-woman’s ability to channel the darker, more sexualised elements of the black queen in his radical new vision.

And so, an intense psychodrama of duality and alternate persona begins – eating away at Nina’s already fragile psyche.

In scenes reminiscent of Polanski at his most tortured and paranoiac, Nina begins to see visions of herself reflected in the city. She feels stalked by demons, phantoms and predators. Her journey mirrors that of the queen herself, with various dual suitors torturing her as she continues to put herself through the psychological torment and physical demands of landing her dream role.

Thomas is both mentor and tormentor, his older muse Beth (Winona Ryder, terrible) a Swanson-like nemesis. Draining Nina further is her own mother (Barbara Hershey channelling Sirkian melodrama), a passive/aggressive matriarch and ex-dancer who treats her daughter like a child.

Pushing Nina further into the abyss is Lily, her alternate, played by Mila Kunis in a coolly confident role that recalls a younger, less self-conscious Angelina Jolie. A rival dancer and more febrile, relaxed and sensual performer, Lily represents, in Thomas’ eyes, the ideal black queen.

Let’s be clear, this is not a subtle piece of work, although there are nuances throughout which I’m sure will reveal themselves in further viewings. Although Aranofsky employs the same grainy aesthetic as his hugely enjoyable The Wrestler, and has returned again to terrain that explores extreme physicality, this is a very different work in tone.

Black Swan, like that earlier film, is about the pleasure and pain of life as performance. However, where The Wrestler explored the external world around Rourke's fading fighter, this film is very much an internalised psychodrama seen entirely through the fractured mindset of a young woman on the precipice of madness.

More seasoned reviewers than I have identified a whole range of fairly obvious influences so I won’t repeat those here. What I will say is that when I first heard about this film I anticipated some sort of demented Suspiria/Showgirls mash up – and I still would’ve been first in line had it been so.

But this is neither camp, gleeful trash nor cinefantastique. Outside the ballet setting and a frisson of the giallo atmosphere, I couldn’t detect any Dario Argento influence at all.

If you wanted to be really perverse (and tenuous) the only Argento work this has common ground with would be The Stendhal Syndrome. Both films share elements of power-play sexual dynamics and the hallucinatory effect of losing oneself in art. However, given that Argento’s film uses these themes as a way of distracting from what is otherwise a diabolical shitfest, I doubt Aranofsky has even heard of it, let alone been influenced by it.

I do wish Aranofsky had taken a leaf out of the Verhoeven book though. His film is a bit too restrained at times. I would love to have seen a little more craziness; for the director to heed Thomas’ advice to Nina: ‘let yourself go, transcend the material’.

That said there are some enjoyably arch moments and bits of dialogue, most of which are Casell's. ‘I want you to go home and touch yourself, live a little’, he says to Nina, while coming on to her in his opulent apartment (well, I laughed).

Portman’s masturbatory moments (in a bath and in the bedroom surrounded by pink soft toys and girlish ephemera) and a hot and heavy lesbian scene with Kunis are indications of what the film could’ve been in less careful hands, but they bolster the films inherent b-movie dynamics and prevent it from taking itself too seriously.

The closing third of the film is where Aranofsky really lets rip, and where Matthew Libatique‘s over-the-shoulder cinematography and Clint Mansell's relentless dread-fuelled score combine to outstanding effect – sustaining a mood of endless murk and uncertainty. These moments help to build the tension superbly, complementing the impending ballet while Nina’s internal and external demons continue to battle for her soul.

The staging of the opera itself is magnificent, with perhaps the most intense and dynamic scenes of ballet ever committed to celluloid. And special mention must be made of rodarte and Yumiko's outlandish costumes, which, in the films climactic dance, take on an extra dimension of Cronenberg-like body horror.

This rather fevered appraisal of the film might come back to bite me when I view the film again. But I can deal with that later. For cinema, as much as it is about anything, should be about making bold declarations, not being afraid to look foolish.

Aranofsky has again proved himself to be a risk-taker. His latest might not be *about* very much, but everything about it screams purest cinema.

So here’s my bold declaration: Black Swan is the most exciting and exhilarating movie of the festival so far. My favourite of 2010.


  1. benito robinsoni28 October 2010 at 22:55

    A linguistic, critical, cultural tour-de-force, as always Dave! i really can't wait to see this movie!.....

  2. I am overwhelmed by the praise! Cheers Benno, I think YOU are really going to love this film.