Thursday, 16 December 2010

BLACK SWAN - This swan is certainly no ugly duckling

It would be perfectly normal to see a performance of Swan Lake greeted with a standing ovation at the climax of the show, but a standing ovation in a cinema is rarely seen outside of the Cannes Film Festival. However this is precisely what I wanted to give Black Swan when the end credits rolled on this fabulous film... but I didn't. I wasn't at a film festival, but in the middle of a crowded cinema in New York and I would have felt like a bit of an idiot clapping on my own!

In a year of overhyped cinematic disappointments, it was a delight to find a film that actually exceeded expectations, helped by the fact that I had only watched the teaser trailer and seen the gorgeous poster campaign.

Darren Aronofsky returns to the world of performance that he explored in The Wrestler but transfers the action from the wrestling ring to the ballet stage, examining the price that someone is willing to pay in order to succeed.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sears; a young, up-and-coming ballerina who is picked to play the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake.
Whilst she is perfect for the fragile, innocent Swan Queen, her director (played with sleazy charm by Vincent Cassel) worries that she does not have the passion or sensuality needed to portray the Black Swan.
As Nina gets deeper and deeper into the role, she begins to lose her grip on reality, afraid that her understudy Lily is after her part, as she embodies the freedom and sexuality that Nina craves.

While The Wrestler was shot in the style of a documentary, Black Swan is a full blown, unashamed psychological thriller.

When I first saw the trailer, I thought the look and feel of the film as "if Polanski had directed a hybrid of The Red Shoes and Suspiria" and I wasn't wrong in my assumptions.
As Nina's darker side of her personality emerges, it manifests itself both mentally and physically as she is plagued by visions of a doppleganger and even undergoes some disturbing physical transformations in scenes that are a clear nod to David Cronenberg's The Fly.

Aronofsky delved into a nightmarish world in Requiem For A Dream and has crafted a film that slowly ramps up the tension to a point where this film is scarier than the majority of horror films released this year. The use of handheld camera creates a palpable sense of unease that trickles through the film like Nina's growing sense of paranoia and persecution.
By using the camera in this way, neither Nina or the audience are able to distinguish what is real and what is in Nina's head.

As Nina learns to become less inhibited, it triggers not only changes in her personality but also a sexual awakening: starting with seduction by her director, to pleasuring herself and culminating in the only scene this year that features Meg from Family Guy going down on Queen Amidala (and destined to become the main talking point of many reviews).
A lot of the film's humour comes from these scenes and the dialogue would not seem out of place in Showgirls, but it never descends into sleaze and that is due to the performances of the actors.

Natalie Portman delivers the performance of her career and must be the front runner for the Best Actress Oscar in February.
Like the ugly duckling that transformed into a swan, Portman undergoes a magnificent metamorphisis.
She begins the film as a placid, innocent "sweet girl". Her protective and domineering mother (played by Barbara Hershey in full-on Mommie Dearest mode) has denied her a proper childhood, instead putting all her focus into her dancing, in an attempt to live out her dreams through her daughter.
Until now Portman has done well with roles that captured her ingenuity like Leon and Beautiful Girls but this is her first truly grown up performance reaching a level of maturity and confidence previously hinted at in Closer.
Her final dance as the Black Swan is a truly mesmerising scene to watch and completely becomes the character, leaving the old Nina behind.

It would be a crime to review the film without commenting on the ballet sequences. “it’s been done to death, I know, but not like this. We’re going to strip it down and make it visceral and real” says Cassel's character early on in the film and that is what they have done with the choreography here, all beautifully underscored by Clint Mansell who also puts his own spin on the classic Tchaikovsky. Portman and Kunis deserve huge credit for doing the majority of the dancing themselves.
I will hold my hands up and say that I am not a huge ballet fan and don't know much about the technical side of it, but I became swept up in the story being told through the dance and was nearly shed a tear during the final number... and since I have never cried at a film that is a bold statement.

Portman's final line of the film is "I was perfect" and she was. I rarely use the "M" word to describe a film, especially a new release but Black Swan is that rare beast in Hollywood these days: A Masterpiece.

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