Review: Black Swan

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I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who has turned into a swan

Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-drama is an odd, gaudy and messy film that in rather contradictory fashion is both rich and superficial, an intense experience (especially if you’re with someone else) that’s gripping but also punctuated by some cartoonish characterisation, horror and dialogue that somehow manages to fit together in an odd but gratifying concoction. You’ll certainly be in for a rude awakening if you go into this film thinking it’s just about ballet.

It’s a film about obsession, madness, control, perfection and identity. It’s rich thematically and full of some startling imagery, there’s a lot to discuss and yet at the same time it’s also very, very simplistic. The thing that I couldn’t figure out in my earlier tweet I subsequently beat out of my head when I gave the film more thought.

It’s the overwhelming lack of subtlety and its search to uncover as many clichés as it possibly can that I initially found to be problematic. It’s not a problem for me anymore but it may be for those looking for some depth and perhaps a degree of intellectualism to go along with their horror as the film is seriously lacking in any kind of restraint.

If the subtlety that Aronofsky used is akin to a sledgehammer then I think my body has been beaten to a bloody pulp by now. If you can just have a look at Nina’s room, you may laugh at just how ludicrous and childish it all looks. That reaction has to be intentional, it’s just too obvious.

It’s a film about obsession, madness, control, perfection and identity. It’s rich thematically and boasting some startling imagery, there’s a lot to discuss and yet at the same time it’s also very, very simplistic. The thing that I couldn’t figure out in my earlier tweet I subsequently beat out of my head when I gave the film more thought.

It’s the overwhelming lack of subtlety and its search to uncover as many clichés as it possibly can that I initially found to be problematic. It’s not a problem for me anymore but it may be for those looking for some depth and perhaps a degree of intellectualism to go along with their horror as the film is seriously lacking in any kind of restraint.

If the subtlety that Aronofsky used is akin to a sledgehammer then I think my body has been beaten to a bloody pulp by now. If you can just have a look at Nina’s room, you may laugh at just how ludicrous and childish it all looks. That reaction has to be intentional, it’s just too obvious.

But that is part of the point with this film, it’s a full on visceral experience that’s in your face (and does a better job of it than 3D does) and by the end you’re either totally engrossed or completely indifferent to.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer (unsurprisingly, their best one) who has won the role of playing the White Swan in a new production of Swan Lake after the production’s previous dancer (Winona Ryder) is ‘retired’. However she appears to be too emotionally insipid and sexually frigid to play the role of the more seductive Black Swan and Nina’s obsession for perfection causes her fragile state mind to disintegrate. There’s a lot to dig in to and this film is not interested in being introspective but there’s just a wealth of ideas that the film explores in a rather breathless fashion.

Nina needs to perform dual roles; one has to reflect the naivety and innocence of the White Swan which she fits like a glove. The other has to be the darker, seductive incarnation of the Black Swan, one that Nina can’t express. She’s too frigid and insipid; she has neither the experience nor the sexual allure to bring that interpretation off. This leads to her fractured mind, the two parts of her psyche fighting against each other.

She’s so emotionally reserved that when she uncovers her darker side it is the polar opposite (and therefore the complete extreme) of her normal persona. Again the lack of subtlety makes it obvious; Nina dresses in white, her ‘alter ego’ dresses in black. Nina’s struggle in forming her own identity comes to the fore and sets her on the path of self-destruction.

Her sense of identity is in some ways linked to control and the two domineering figures on her life are her mother Erica (Barbara Hersey) and Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the new interpretation of Swan Lake. Her mother is over-protective and going through what looks like an almighty bout of depression.

She’s constantly dressed in black clothes that make her look like a witch (some kind of Wicked Witch perhaps?) and draws some horribly depressing looking portraits (of what, or who?). She infantilises Nina and allows her to live her childish life (her room is pink and there are fluffy, cuddly teddy bears littered around) and her presence looms large over her daughter.

Her choice to quit ballet and look after Nina is not referred to many times but is a constant source of underlying tension between the two with the sense that Nina’s need for perfection stems from not wanting to fail, much like her mother did.

Leroy is another area of control, whereas Erica wants to rein Nina in by keeping her on a leash; Leroy wants to free her from the restrictions she’s placed on herself. Cassel plays the character as very…forthright, brazen in his methods and not afraid to speak his mind (however clichéd it is) but his control is just as important as Erica’s and Nina is stuck in this tug of war that precipitates her unravelling.

I haven’t mentioned Mila Kunis who’s escaped from starring in dreck like Max Payne and shows untapped talent here. Kunis’ Lily whispers into Nina’s ear, leading her astray and even further from safer ground. It helps that she looks similar in build and look to Portman, reinforcing the theme of doppelgangers and alter egos.

Portman gives the best performance in a film that could have been sunk by below par performances and suffocating melodrama. She thrives portraying Nina as the callow, innocent “sweet girl” that she is (notice how she’s always alone and never in a group at the dance sessions). Her voice is just a little weak and afraid of projecting itself; she lacks confidence in herself and while she’s demanding she’s also subservient to the demands of others.

Her transformation is just tremendous to watch, she fully commits to the madness becoming a very unreliable narrator as a result. It’s in the final performance where the viewer struggles to discern what’s real or a figment of her imagination that the film becomes almost too surreal an experience. So many films like to tell the audience what’s going on, Black Swan just loses itself in a morass of sound and imagery.

Technically the film is excellent whether it’s down to the impactful sound design/editing (some sounds sound like the hiss of a swan), Matthew Libbatique’s cinematography which is grainy and unafraid to approach it’s subjects up close, displaying some unflattering images of the human body. Clint Mansell’s music incorporates elements of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (unfortunately was ruled out of the Oscar run-in as a result) is especially effective in the final sequence. The script, especially the dialogue is more than a little on the nose but worth it for the trade-off for the lurid, fantastical images.

Aronofsky’s approach to the work isn’t all too original; he’s not the most understated of directors (and quite frankly who cares if he isn’t). There are elements of Cronenberg’s body horror in there; the transformation certainly echoes Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (a wonderful film that you should try and see) is definitely an influence and I’ve heard people compare this film with Polanski’s Repulsion (a film I’m not familiar with). Nonetheless bringing together these elements in this fashion makes for an experience that’s not easy to shrug off.

Terrifying and surreal, it’s also more humorous than the premise would suggest, Black Swan may confuse and it may bite off more than it can chew but it’s a strange and intoxicating film to watch.

8/10

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Posted on 24/01/2011, in Best of, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I loved Black Swan overall, but one part in particular made it less than perfect for me- when her legs mutate, emulating a swans’ and “break” in her bedroom. The CGI seemed clumsy and a little cheap and pulled me out of my immersion. I resented that.

    • Yeah I know which bit you’re talking about, in my theatre a lot of people laughed at that. I couldn’t tell whether it was at it or because they laughed because it felt so out of place. It was an odd and like I said in the review there are times where the film is very unsubtle, considering the film’s cost ($13 million) the CGI is pretty impressive.

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