Review: BLACK SWAN - That Rare and Beautiful Thing - A Perfect Movie

rating: 5

(Rob's Venice review re-posted as Black Swan opens in the U.K. today) For those that read my instant and knee-jerk reaction to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan on Wednesday, straight after the film opened the 67th Venice Film Festival, the word €œmasterpiece€ may have struck as an overreaction. The enthusiastic rantings of a fan, perhaps. But now, with a good couple of days behind me to properly mull it over, I can safely say that I stand by those early remarks. I was not really much of an Aronofsky fan, prior to this. Sure, I enjoyed (or more appreciated) The Wrestler (the Golden Lion winner here in 2008), but I found Pi a bit pretentious, and the other two somewhere in between interesting and tedious. So I wasn't going into Black Swan as a fan. I was indifferent. Therefore, it came as a bit of a shock for me to find the film as interesting, as exciting and as complete as it was. What surprised me more was that, was that whilst Aronofsky's previous films have always left me a little cold, Black Swan took me through a whole range of emotions. I don't know whether anybody would classify Black Swan as a horror movie. Yet it was, at times, one of the most horrific films I have seen. I was certainly tempted to cover my face more often than I had been during Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, a film with far less visceral and horrific imagery than this film about ballet. Which is not to diminish Antichrist at all. Whether it was the oft-repeated device of the mother (Barbara Hershey) cutting the fingernails of Nina (Natalie Portman), with tense music, quick editing and edgey close-ups, or the sight of the latest grotesque ballet injury, Black Swan had me wincing and squirming throughout. It made me jump a number of times and, at one point, I felt literally paralysed by fear, unable to blink or turn away €“ frozen stiff, even unwilling to breath. I don't scare easily, for instance The Shining (great though that is) fails to frighten me. But Black Swan was, during one scene, so terrifying to me that thinking about it now makes me shudder. And like I say, it is not even really a horror film. It is, for all intents and purposes, a film about ballet. In fact it owes much to The Red Shoes, with some shots are directly borrowed, such as the first person view as Nina spins around in rehersal. It also has some similar themes, such as the obsessive and destructive relationship between Nina and her director (Vincent Cassel). Furthermore, it is also essentially an adaptation of Swan Lake €“ the ballet Portman's character is set to perform within the film, but with which her own life (or psyche) becomes linked, in a frenetic psychological assualt as dreams and hallucinations are confused with reality. Here Black Swan blurs the line between dream and reality effortlessly - and in a way Inception never did, for all its thrills. Near the film's start, Cassel's Thomas tells his dancers they are to stage Swan Lake: €œit's been done to death, I know, but not like this. We're going to strip it down and make it visceral and real€, and this is basically Aronofsky's brief for Black Swan as a movie. He tells this ballet story in a way reminiscent of The Wrestler, finding many of the same concerns and pitfalls in this art, traditionally seen as the preserve of the dainty. Emphasis is placed on Portman's foot muscles as she stands on her toes and on the bloody breaking of her toenails as she pushes her body to its limit in search of perfection. Similar too is the way that this film uses the star personae of its actors to enrich things, whilst also studying some of the same key issues: fear of aging and of being less than you once were. If Mickey Rourke's own ups and downs were expressed in that last film, then Winona Ryder's are mined here. Her aging dancer, Beth, was once a star. But now she finds herself no longer wanted and considered too old to play the main role. Portman is the upstart here: the new Winona Ryder. Once upon a time, Ryder was the young and attractive female lead of Edward Scissorhands, whereas most recently she was Spock's mum in the latest Star Trek. It is typically bleak of Aronofsky to make this statement, which implies a less than ideal future for Portman, but it certainly works and gives the drama an added dimension, aswell as a sense of hyper-reality amidst the madness and despair. Incidentally, Ryder is also very good in the role, and will certainly be hoping for a Rourke-style comeback of her own. But it is Natalie Portman really shines here. €œIt's a hard fucking job to do both€, Thomas says of the challenge involved in playing both the white and black swan in his ballet. But it is a challenge Portman rises to in her portrayal of Nina. I said before that she's got to be in contention for the Academy Award next time around, and with any justice she will be. Not just for the physical commitment to the role (which saw her take up a year of intense training prior to shooting), but also because she absolutely nails both the black and white varieties of swan €“ with both of her painful, fragile beauty cocealing grit and an inner darkness. That the film's climax had me in holding back floods of tears was a testement to both her directors vision and her astounding craft as an actress. The best individual performance I have seen this year. The aforementioned Cassel, is funny, charismatic and sleezy in his role, convincing as an unorthodox artistc genius. Then there is Mila Kunis' ambitious, seductive (and possibly dangerous) Lilly, and with her the psycho-sexual aspect of the film's exploration of the id. As I said in my review of Happy Few, there is a frank and unabashed expression of raw sexuality driving through many of this year's films, and Black Swan is one of those with quite explicit scenes, shot in a way which avoids exploitation or vulgarity, even as they depict some pretty racey stuff €“ including an inventive and disturbing twist on an age-old embaressment. I haven't even really touched on the technical side: the virtuosity of the camera work, which puts you in the dances in a way I have never seen done previously, as well as the film's breathtaking and daring use of colour, editing and sound design. I could write another review just focussing on all that stuff. But the really astounding thing is how it all adds up to make the film so emotionally intense. It is a precise and complete film experience visually, phonically and narratively, but always driving to provoke a mood and a feeling. It is cinema at its most alive and vital, rather than art for art's sake. There isn't anything out of place, anything unnecessary. Black Swan is paired down to the essentials and ends exactly when it should, stopping everywhere it must along the way and never deviating from its course. You won't find any unnecessary sub-plots here. Yet it always surprises and never feels too rigid. Like ballet itself, it is precise but not without emotion. It is disciplined, but also loose. It is a rare and beautiful thing: a perfect movie. Aronofsky said, at the post-film press conference, that he always likened Black Swan to The Wrestler in his own mind, since this project's beginning back as far as 2002. But that he felt it properly combined his earlier, perhaps more experimental and less literal style, with that later film's more realist documentary aesthetic. I think that maybe a key ingredient behind this film's success. It is the perfect marriage of those two styles and the real beginning to Aronofsky's claim to true greatness. Time will tell if he can do it again. But regardless, Black Swan is a towering achievement. Both as cinema and as an unadulterated emotional ride. I get a fuzzy feeling at the back of my head when recalling it, even now nearly two days later. And how often can you say that? Black Swan is released today in the U.K.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.