Posted by: Paul | February 23, 2011

Black Swan

A few weeks ago I intended to write a post on upcoming films I wanted to see, but have totally missed the boat on that with all three (Black Swan, Paul and Never Let Me Go) having since been released. Of the three, if I could have picked just one to see at the cinema (what with babysitters having limited availability) it would of course have been Paul – and not only because it would have afforded me the opportunity to argue with the cashier that I should be allowed free entry on account of my name.

Anyway, thanks to rather odd scheduling on the part of our local cinema (Paul wasn’t shown until almost 9pm, too late for a school night), the one-out-of-three became Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s BAFTA winning tour de force of a performance in Darren Aronofsky’s intense story of obsession and perfection.

I really admire Aronofsky as a director. I’ve only seen two of his previous films – Pi and Requiem for a Dream – and it’s testament to the man’s abilities as a filmmaker that I’ve remained a fan despite the fact that I never EVER want to see either of those movies again. Seriously, you can keep your SAW‘s and your Hostel‘s, the last ten minutes of Requiem for a Dream are the most stomach-churning, upsetting and visceral climax I believe has ever been committed to celluloid. It took me days to get over it and I still remember it vividly now. It’s because you’re made to care, and put into those characters’ shoes like almost no other filmmaker can, that what happens affects you so deeply. They are not simply madman-fodder, put on screen with the intention of being ripped apart – what an odd business the cinema world is!

Black Swan adopts an even more intimate approach. Natalie Portman’s Nina is almost never off screen, events often viewed from an over the shoulder direct perspective, and she is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Living a very sheltered life with an over-protective mother (the brilliant Barbara Hershey), exceptional ballerina Nina is rewarded for her dedication and patience with the role every female dancer craves – the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Controlled, technical and with a fragile beauty Nina embodies the character of the White Swan, but struggles with the passion and wild abandon of Odile, the ‘evil twin’ Black Swan. It’s a rare thing for someone to perform both effectively, and Nina’s already fragile psyche is pushed to breaking point and beyond in her quest for perfection.

Already paranoid and hallucinating from the very beginning of the movie, it quickly becomes apparent that all Nina needs for her to crack is a little squeeze. She has a history of self-harm, and with the audience not being able to quite trust in what she sees, what are we to make of the marks appearing on her shoulder blades? Are they really a rash?

That squeeze comes from dual directions, in the shape of the predatory Tomas (Vincent Cassel), the Director of her company who sees an opportunity to take sexual advantage of what is essentially a frightened young girl (and to elicit the right performance from her, almost as a side-effect of his actions), and Lily, a new dancer who is able to embrace her passion in the way Nina cannot. Lily pushes Nina out of her comfort zone (with drugs, alcohol and sex) – and over the edge when Lily is made Nina’s understudy and her paranoia reaches full tilt. The terrifying hallucinations become all pervasive, Nina is seeing herself, Lily, her mother or fallen prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) everywhere she looks. Can she hold it together long enough to get on stage?

Black Swan is about ballet about as much as Fight Club is about boxing. It’s a film about obsession, perfection, paranoia and how stress can push a person to the limit of their sanity. Portman is absolutely outstanding – a shoo-in for Best Actress at the Oscars. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a performance so immersive and intense, so much is asked of her and everything given (she reportedly trained for 10 months in preparation). It sounds like an odd thing to say, but with the slightest change in her facial expression Portman becomes a different character within the film. It’s instinctive acting.

The movie is also terrifying. I finally overcame my fear and got round to watching The Orphanage at the weekend – and Black Swan is far scarier. There’s one particularly memorable sequence lasting about 15 minutes where there is absolutely no let-up – Nina’s going mad and Aronofsky is going to send you with her. It’s really quite something – the audience in our showing were on the elderly side, and having known one or two details before going in I thought to myself ‘You’re all in for a bit of a shock, here!’

In short, it was one of those rare movies that I came out of trembling. It was an astonishing achievement, pure cinema, and simply must be seen on the big screen. It’s exquisitely composed – from the almost absence of colour (black and white is everywhere) to the constant presence of mirrors (I find myself looking over my shoulder a lot this morning) to the tiniest flash frames and did-I-really-see-that moments throughout (again, a masterstroke that puts you in Nina’s position like nothing else), not many people will make a better film in their entire career than Aronofsky has made here. Everything on screen is essential, not a detail is wasted. The focus of the film is narrow, the story actually quite simple when you break it down to bare bones, but this is ultimately a film about purity, and that goes for all its elements.

Don’t miss it. It was perfect.

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