Monday, 21 February 2011

Film Review: Black Swan

(Directed by Darren Aronofsky, running time 108 minutes)

I’ve come to realize that in a Darren Aronofsky film, achievement is either out of reach or only obtainable through painful struggle or worse. While not necessarily a negative point, it does prepare one’s self prior to viewing. You’ll at least be prepared for the worse. More interesting though is this notion in itself is not really a “spoiler” for Black Swan, at least not for those who are familiar with Aronofsky’s work. If you’re not however... let’s just say that the trailer for the UK version is somewhat misleading.

That’s not to say the trailer completely is edited for marketing’s sake. The basic theme literally is one girl’s struggle to obtain her highest goal. Said girl is Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, an aspiring talented young ballet performer. Despite the hidden strength that ballet requires, Nina is more of a full grown child, still showing timid behavior, prudishness and social ignorance, all of which seem to stem from her reclusive home life with just her over bearing mother who is also under the same mind set towards her daughter and who might just be compensating for her own lost days and passion for the dance. When her theater begins to recruit and train for a supposed different take on the classic ballet “Swan Lake”, Nina is perfect to play the role of the beautiful and elegant white swan... however it is a duel role requiring to play the alter-ego black swan, passionate, wild and loose... basically what Nina isn’t, so naturally training for such a role quickly becomes a full time obsession.

To throw a spanner into the works, the theater also receives a new recruit named Lily, played by Mila Kunis who actually seems perfect for the role of the black swan. As Nina begins to practice more and more, she begins to change in personality... but also in mentality, encouraged further by Lily’s wild and active presence. The is the prime focus of the film, the psychological changes Nina goes through and while to others she may appear in desperate need to break the routine, being an already fragile mind such changes take form in sudden, often times twisted manifestations. To give one example, throughout the film Nina develops scratches on her back, sometimes even bleeding to the concern of her mother and others yet the wound from only Nina’s perspective takes on a different form. Without spoiling anything, such obscure, even disturbing imagery best described as Cronenberg style body horror is what tempts the audience to keep watching (even though at times causing some to turn away) as throughout there is no clear picture to what these manifestations are or why they are happening and what you do witness may not be true to life... or not. Some might call these sequences more akin to a horror film yet being lightly spread throughout, it never really feels out of place from the drama.

It quickly invokes the same style of psychological torment of Aronofsky’s famous Requiem for a Dream, and just a with that film, one would go far as to call the film depressing at times. By no means on the same level as his previous “reaching for prozac” setup but still comes full circle back to the initial notion from the start of this article. Such is the case with Winona Ryder who plays a side role as the original top performer at the theater before being forced to retire, Nina’s new found popularity as the next star not being particularly good PR, which obviously leads to a break down that itself begins to haunt Nina and the audience.

One the side of performances, Portman who in the past has settled for just "being there" (glares at Star War I, II & III) truly does give her best as a fragile mind that has only just begun to grow while cracking down the middle. Mila Kunis who before was something of an unknown (seriously, Meg Griffin!?) has been able herself to pack a punch and leave with something memorable. Another role of note however comes from the character Thomas Leroy the theater director, played by Vincent Cassel who at first appears as your typical perverted old teacher archetype but instead becomes in Nina’s mind as something of a sexual liberator, as someone who is trying to help a servilely repressed woman. It’s a particularly profuse role and one that carries more weight within the narrative than as first expected and one whose overall character might divide audiences.

In the most straight forward of senses, labeling the pictures as a “ballet drama” like some trailers mentioned at the start would be something as to limit the potential audience (yes, there’s still that “girly” view of the practice). Ballet however is something of a vintage form of art and as with any art can come the negative psychological aspect from those already near to breaking point. Instead Black Swan presents us with a story of obsession and (a late) liberation of one’s life within the role of a high class performance. While less degrading to it’s characters like Requiem while also being less true to life like The Wrestler, the film is still a worthy companion piece that pulls all the punches to deliver a film that is both elegant and twisted and clearly some of the best performances of it’s actors and actresses so far.

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