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Black Swan

Black Swan should bag the lot at the forthcoming Oscars. This means, of course, that it will probably win nothing. It’s too dark and disturbing; it has too many surreal, hallucinatory conceits; it flaunts the ‘triumph over adversity’ line and yet mockingly adheres to it in spectacularly fantastical, horrific, epically bittersweet fashion.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a too-intense member of a ballet ensemble desperate to land the upcoming ‘Swan Lake’ lead role; current, soon-to-be-disposed incumbent Winona Ryder (who later scowls expertly as a ruined husk) is the mascara-streaked, capitulating ‘princess’; Mila Kunis the effortless, primed rival. (Or are they? Yes, it’s that kind of film.) Nina, with mysterious, thriving cuts hinting at a quickly-emerging inner-turmoil, wins the part despite vocal misgivings from head-honcho and mentor Vincent Cassel (more perfect casting: likeable, charismatically harsh Gucci-lizard-commander-in-chief nailed with ease), who doubts that she has the Dionysiac elements within to believably embody the requisite dark-half of the role, and plans to sexually initiate her anyway, just in case.

Cassel (who at times feels like Walken doing the Twin Peaks giant) eventually suggests: ‘A bit of homework for you. Go home and play with yourself.’ She seems fairly impressed when she does as instructed, but is sprung from imminent-ecstasy by the unbeknownst proximity of her sleeping, over-surveilling mother (a gloriously dead-eyed, buck-toothed Barbara Hershey), slumped bedside. Suggestions of warped, contemporised fairytales are unavoidable. 

As Nina grows into the role, she grows apart from her mother and invites the necessary flux with which to inhabit the Black Swan. Mila Kunis, as a freer, more chaotic, lasciviously feline presence seems amused and fascinated by Portman’s frigid immutability and is witting catalyst to Nina’s imminent metamorphic lurch into sapphic awakening: cue a not-particularly fraught night on the dancefloor, and Nina is soon approaching pulse-red status as fully-fledged askew siren, abandoning herself to a sweaty bout of hedonism which in turn instigates a rapid maturity and lays the groundwork for an insanely spectacular stab at hitherto out-of-reach heights. She’s soon back at home and offering back-chat to mortified mother, the cracks widen and we soon veer off into a heady, erotically-charged, hallucinatory netherworld where reality meshes with speculative phantoms and the old Nina succumbs amidst surreal, lurid hysteria.

Natalie Portman offers more a commitment of tormented vulnerability than a performance: she is a vortex of emotional vacillation that canny directors employ to fulfil a certain ‘feel’ of fragile beauty, damaged elegance, a doomed waif figure with a hint of masochism. Put her in a film and lend it a certain aspect, instantaneously imbue it with contradictory, troubling potencies. As such she’s a peculiar, unique actress, not unlike Carey Mulligan, and she’s the epitome of perfect casting here. Barbara Hershey offers a suitably disturbing counterpoint as the controlling, ghoulish mother, a menacing influence wrestling with barely subdued, ruinous ambition for her voided daughter and a seething drive, which is clearly beyond the coax of rehearsed domestic smiles, towards mutual oblivion.

Aronofsky manages to evoke the slow dread that Kubrick and Polanski have oft expertly employed. The visual leitmotifs are starkly overplayed, perhaps, but the flipside argument could read: such consistently glaring asymmetry plays into the otherworldly Grimm-Tales feel of the piece. This is an alternate reality of often terrifying, warped verisimilitude. A surreal, clankingly over-daring visual mis-step or two doesn’t over-detract. The sound editing is also rigorously unsettling, offering as it does a restless prompting, every scratch, murmur and wince is amplified and joltingly emphatic, augmenting the film’s nightmare logic whereby all is potentially dangerous and unpredictable.

Black Swan has you recalling, amongst others, De Palma, Argento’s Suspiria, Orphee and The Red Shoes and is a fascinating riff on the idea of ambition and its accompanying paranoia, the allure of danger, the hell of safety and domestic stasis, vicarious living, all of that. That fame and success can be deathly is hardly any revelation, but Black Swan is an exceptional example of inexorable-peril cinema, offers up a wonderfully realised vision of resplendent but unmistakable hell, and is a rapturous, soaring, mesmerising nightmare, easily the director’s best effort to date.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 31, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Great stuff Lee, and thank you for your comments on my own review. I’m going to stick by The Wrestler as his best film to date however simply because it touched my heart in a way this film never could have.

    • April 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm

      Cheers William, no problem. I did like The Wrestler but thought this probably his best yet – and I still recall walking out of the cinema speechless after Requiem…and I’d still like to see this and The Wrestler as Aronofsky originally envisaged…

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