21 January 2011

Review | Black Swan

Walking out of my first viewing of Black Swan, I find myself almost gasping for air. First impressions: visceral, intense, breathtaking. In one scene, Natalie Portman smashes her alter ego into a mirror. Watching this stunning and tumultuous film, you feel like her victim. It's a complete assault on the senses, one which wraps its seductive fingers around your throat and refuses to let go until it's had its way with you.

Portman portrays Nina, a young and talented ballet dancer intent on achieving perfection. Chosen as the lead in a new interpretation of
Swan Lake, she must portray the White Swan as well as its darker twin, the Black Swan, who is hellbent on taking control and ultimately leads to the other's demise. Ably portraying the former by being what her doting yet controlling mother calls a naturally "sweet girl", she struggles to find the darkness within that is required for its nemesis. Her director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), encourages her to take note of fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who appears to live an uninhibited and free existence, and who Nina begins to suspect is trying to take over her part - and life. As she attempts to find her dark side, Nina finds herself plagued by visions and hallucinations that threaten to overtake her, and continually questions whether they are imagination or reality.

Although naturally featuring a lot of dancing, Black Swan is less about ballet and more about obsession. Nina is determined to achieve perfection in her dancing and in her life, whilst her director Leroy wants her to aim for the complete opposite - forget perfection and find yourself. Only then will she find the Black Swan. Is Nina cracking up? Are her suspicions about Lily trying to overtake her true or is it purely a figment of her imagination? The answer is irrelevant. If you come out of this film with that as your first thought, you have somehow missed the point and forgotten to open yourself up to the experience.

The acting is superb. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel give good supporting efforts, and Barbara Hershey turns in a devilishly wonderful performance as Nina's overbearing and failed dancer mother. We feel the suffocation Nina experiences when at her home, and like her, we cannot escape her mother's constant supervision and scrutiny. With no locks on any doors, Nina cannot find privacy in both a physical or a mental sense, and must wrestle with her demons with all eyes upon her.

In a clever piece of casting, Winona Ryder plays the role of Beth, the ageing and fading star of the stage who finds herself passed over for the much younger Nina. As a big Hollywood star of the nineties, Ryder has spent the last decade battling her personal demons to find her career - at the ripe young age of 39 - virtually washed up. This film makes as much a statement about Hollywood's distaste for ageing females as it does about its sad belief that appearances are everything. Nina's scars and self-harm scratches are fine and dandy, as long as they remain hidden from view.

Natalie Portman gives a tremendous performance as Nina. Any doubts that the ingénue who gave a tough and mature performance in
Leon would be swallowed up by her woodenness in Star Wars are totally extinguished. Portman will no doubt claim the golden statuette come February and fully deserves it.

The real star of the show, however, is Darren Aronofsky. As the director who brought us
Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, he has shown his remarkable ability to conjure up scenes of visual gorgeousness. He interprets the story with a breathtaking style that is all his own, and unlike some popular directors, always remains aware of the fact that an audience is watching. The frequent use of reflections and shooting into mirrors means that like Nina, we too question what it is we are seeing and find ourselves trying to discern fiction from reality.

Screw ballet; in terms of scale,
Black Swan is pure opera. The swelling music (used to excellent diegetic effect) fills the ears and the screen, and the camera dances along with Nina and swoops in for intense close-ups. Unable to be separated from the eye of the camera, we as the audience have the ultimate front seats to this performance, and are witnesses to the gradual meltdown of this beautiful swan. Yes, it is often melodramatic and goes straight for the jugular, and yes, you may well be nursing a sore head by the time the credits roll. But open yourself up. Pay your hard-earned dough to experience sheer cinema. As the heroine of Swan Lake eventually chooses death, all we can do is hold our breath whilst she takes us down with her.