Black Swan Review

30 Mar

A film review by David Leverton

Black Swan (15) // 20th Century Fox // Dir: Darren Aronofsky // DVD

I finally went to see Black Swan at the cinema after meaning to for weeks but not getting around to it, until I figured I’d better get in before the Oscars – because I wanted to view Natalie Portman’s performance unencumbered by the thought that it’s an Oscar-winning one, should that turn out to be the case as was widely tipped. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t already started picking up a decent collection of awards for it, but the Academy Awards are still the ones that ‘matter’, subconsciously or otherwise, aren’t they? I mean, I get this feeling that I’d be watching it like I ‘ought’ to be impressed, like I was being coerced to somehow, and wouldn’t be able to appreciate it on my own terms in the way I really wanted to do. Well, I can say I was highly impressed – it’s a great film, in more than the obvious ways perhaps: quite apart from being an unsettling psychological thriller in its own right, mixed with dazzling dance virtuosity, this is such an immersive experience of an elite ballet world that by nature is supremely highly strung and driven, I actually came out of the cinema feeling in a state of incredibly heightened reality. My own nerves were jangling all the way home, as if I’d been involved myself: quite a cinematic feat, really. It’s hard to say, in a way, just how good Portman is in it; yes, she did win the Oscar days later, and it’s a mesmerising performance as perfectionist-but-inhibited ballet star Nina Sayers, who attempts to get chosen (by an excellent Vincent Cassell’s oh-so-French genius/lothario/Machiavelli of a director, Thomas Leroy) to dance the dual lead role of the pristine White Swan and sensuous, violent Black Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – but in a sense the awe comes less from great acting than mostly because of simply how painfulit looks. Impossible though it is to pinpoint exactly how much of the dancing she performed herself, there’s an awful lot that clearly is her, with every muscle and tendon straining and flexing; and she really is all ribs and shoulderblades, not an ounce of protection on her frame, and you feel everything with her: whether she’s dancing, training, or being stretched, twisted and pummelled every which way on the physiotherapist’s table. Or by her mother, an increasingly repellent, obsessive creation (Barbara Hershey), who is evidently living out her failed dreams through her daughter by driving and controlling every second of her ballet career, whatever the mental and physical harm to Nina.

An obvious and probably instructive comparison is with Darren Aronofsky’s previous, also award-garlanded release The Wrestler; in fact, his earliest idea was apparently for a single film featuring both such characters. Either piece highlights the lone-wolf life of a talented performer, whose body is their everything but who pushes it beyond breaking point, for years on end, in the pursuit of their art – an art that leaves them with few friends, fractured from their family, and physically and emotionally drained. Whether you regard them as high or low culture, they are two sides of the same coin. What separates the ballerina from the wrestler, though, is that, in the test, the latter can depend upon the others in his business for fraternity and support: the ultimate goal is to make each other look good as well as yourself. There are fewer windows of light or freedom in Nina’s frighteningly focused and competitive existence, with even (especially?) her fellow ballerinas not to be trusted since promotion in the company is often by the equivalent of ‘dead man’s shoes’: there is an affecting semi-cameo from Winona Ryder as the (forcibly?) retired previous prima donna, whose own lonely and devastatingly abrupt downward spiral maps out the fate that Nina fears must befall her too, maybe regardless of whether she succeeds or fails.

The suffocating tension ratchets up throughout, as she becomes ever more consumed by thoughts (dreams? fantasies? who knows?) of black feathers, harm, joy and pain, in her effort to persuade Leroy she is capable of letting go of her frigidity enough to dance the dark half of the demanding role. The one breath of fresh air comes from fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who is the yang to Nina’s yin: less technically flawless as a performer, but all expression and soul and effortless erotic drama. Quite whether she is/isn’t/is on Nina’s side is one of the key plot fulcrums, around which the latter half of the film revolves, as Nina’s fragile mind begins to unravel under the stress until neither she nor we can tell – you may notice how many words in this review have crept into brackets followed by question marks – when what’s being seen is reality or hallucination. It’s a brave path to follow, as the corollary is that you could easily lose the audience altogether, but Aronofsky keeps the startling visuals and crackling sensuality flowing without letup. If you’ve seen Revenge of the Sith you’ll know that Portman gives good ‘anguished’, and those crumpled, strained looks become set near-permanently upon her brow as the final act unspools and the Black Swan is finally unleashed. Once again, though, the director leaves his audience hanging (just like he did in The Wrestler), unknowing whether they’ve witnessed triumph or disaster, or both. As a film, though, this definitely falls on the side of the former.
Highly recommended.

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