Black Swan

Portman is the reason to watch.

As a self-confessed Darren Aronofsky obsessive (yes, I even loved The Fountain), imagine my discontent when his latest work, the much-hyped psychological ballet thriller Black Swan, bowed as the not only the biggest disappointment at this year’s London Film Festival (thus far), but as one of the year’s most overhyped works. Drawing curious raves from Venice (though my screening in London was met with a far more lukewarm response), Swan is noted as yet another gamble in the director’s daring oeuvre, this time adopting a more studio-friendly, genre-centric style and thematic, yet, inevitably, Aronofsky’s luck – at least temporarily – appears to have run out.

A prestigious New York ballet company is to host a production of Swan Lake, though director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) wants to do things a little differently, and have the innocent White Swan and seductive Black Swan played by the same person. The naive and pristine Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is Leroy’s first choice, though in order to keep the role, she will have to prove herself capable of playing a sexy tempress, or risk being replaced by her sexier, more confident colleague, Lily (Mila Kunis). With the mounting pressure of not only the production itself, but also the presence of Nina’s overbearing, retired ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), mounting up, Nina’s reality seems to slowly unravel; is Nina going crazy, or is her paranoia justified?

Aronofsky follows up his incredibly intimate and simply brilliant The Wrestler with yet another insightful film into the world of a cut-throat professional field, and these moments in which Aronofsky’s aspirations to Argento or Polanski are unapparent are in fact the film’s best; Portman’s wince-inducingly creaky joints, and the painstaking attention-to-detail – focusing at length on Nina methodically repairing her ballet shoes – brings a gritty gravitas to an activity dismissed by many as inaccessible.

At first taking on a clinical aesthetic, following behind Nina’s as he did with Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” protagonist in his previous film, Aronofsky slowly introduces several bemusing thriller elements, usurping the almost neo-realist style implied by those gritty opening scenes. The inobtrusive, subdued flashes of horror – when Nina swears that she sees two of herself, a subliminal flash of a swan mask during a frantic night club scene, and a clever CGI effect on a set of mirrors – are more agreeably cosetted into the established visual style. Perhaps we digest these minimalist flairs a little easier because of their literary influence, Aronofsky himself noting that Dostoyefsky’s The Double had a part in it. That the one other literary influence, in Kafka – chiefly The Metamorphosis – represents the film’s increasingly sillier side, though, throws this up into the air.

The chief reason this film will be earning Oscar chatter is for its acting (though the general production is immaculate); Cassell is a breeze as the slimy lech of a ballet teacher, who also happens to be a creative genius of sorts. Hershey is also very good as the obsessively supportive mother (though her disjointed screen time should not merit an Oscar nomination despite what the first reviews out of the gate suggest), while Portman is great as the (at first) childlike Nina. Portman’s portrayal of a woman desperate to succeed is heartbreaking (the scene in which she gets the part is magnificent), but as the more generic thriller elements begin to seep in, the quality of her turn – still likely to earn a nomination – is tragically dilluted. Ryder, also touted as nomination-worthy, is haunting as the rejected, old Swan, and it is great to see her again, but screen time totalling little more than ten minutes (again, very disjointed) does not serve her chances well. Kunis, though slight and mostly comic relief, gets a big break here and proves herself able to swim in a major “prestige” pic.

Unapologetically a melodrama of the kind not seen anymore, Aronofsky’s peculiar film writes in broad strokes; scenes in which overzealous incidents happen – the word “whore” being written on Nina’s mirror, and a daft argument between Nina and her mother about a cake – are backed by an uncharacterisically bombastic score from the excellent Clint Mansell, though tethered to the sub-par work done here, it is a fairly forgettable composition despite the integration of elements of Swan Lake. The work as a whole is positioned as a Polanskian throwback of sorts, but it plays more like the annoyingly histrionic (but again, wonderfully acted and beautifully shot) I Am Love, and like that film Black Swan fails to effectively lure the audience into its over-the-top nature.

It is not to say that subtlety has been Aronofsky’s forte to date – Requiem for a Dream was anything but – yet the few subtle glimpses here do add an effective creepines (for instance, I am still unsure whether some eyes on a painting moved when I thought they did). However, the question raised by the half-way mark ostensibly is – “where is this going?” – the slow build, complete with glimpses of body deformity, implies Nina to either be crazy or actually turning into a swan, and frankly, neither would have surprised me. It is a broad effort, painting in easy, obvious strokes, while lacking the crucial visceral punch of the auteur’s best work.

The script’s regard to the three central characters is interesting, particularly with regard to sexual mores and conduct within the comparably tender and graceful field of ballet, but Aronofsky succumbs to temptation and makes of his exploration more a slimy erotic thriller rather than one of burning sexual intensity (the lesbian scene everyone has been talking about is in fact incredibly tame, lads). A scene in which Portman’s Nina masturbates before discovering her mother is asleep in the room (complete with cheesy jump cuts and more portentous music) is absolutely laughable. Similarly, the overdose on jump scares and daft audio cues (a faint sound of what appears to be a swan flapping its wings playing when Mila Kunis enters the room) almost causes one to ask – how is this, performance and production aside, really much better than a bog-standard horror-thriller.

What Aronofsky succeeds at is causing us to question reality (no matter how hokey this reality often is); is Nina’s condition just professional paranoia taken to an extreme degree, or is it something worse? The film’s central thematic device – of how Nina’s life very quickly comes to resemble the plot of Swan Lake – quickly makes it obvious how things are going to end, though.

If Requiem for a Dream lulls you in with a slick aesthetic that gives rise to a more fiendish narrative, then Black Swan goes the other way, appearing arty but soon enough slipping into conventional habits. Its intensity wins it a few points, more thanks to the acting than the script, but on the basis of the terrifying, visceral thriller Aronofsky should have been capable of, this is a shallow, passable disappointment.


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