Don’t be fooled by the fact that Black Swan, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, arrives in SA surfing the crest of a tidal wave of awards-season buzz, writes Lance Harris. It is not one of those mannered, middle-of-the-road dramas that often find favour with awards voters, but an audacious, passionate film that dares to provoke a gut-level emotional response from the viewer.
The film has earned a Golden Globe for lead actress Natalie Portman as well nominations for a number of Oscars including best picture, best actress and best director. The film will probably prove a little too heady to secure any of the big prizes. Black Swan‘s fusion of high and pop culture is as discordant and kinetic as the collision of techno and Tchaikovsky in the film’s score by Clint Mansell.
Black Swan reconfigures Swan Lake into an urban psychodrama that owes more than a tip of the hat to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Brian de Palma’s Carrie and the ballet classic, The Red Shoes. It’s a peculiar blend of arthouse ambition with the idioms of horror films. Compelling, somewhat messy and disturbing, it’s certainly one of the most interesting films of the award season, if not necessarily the best of the crop.
Black Swan and Aronofsky’s masterpiece, The Wrestler, were apparently envisaged as a single story that entwined the lives of a wrestler and a ballerina in a beauty-and-the-beast love affair. The two strands were pried apart by the time the films went into production, but they still form an oddly compelling whole when seen as halves of the same vision.
The film is the Yin to the Yang of The Wrestler, a florid and flamboyant exploration of the trials of young femininity that stands in stark contrast to the economy and restraint of Aronofsky’s character study about the defeated weariness of middle-aged manhood. Portman takes the part of the repressed Nina, a virginal ballerina torn between her pursuit of perfection in her craft, her need to please her mother and her blossoming sexuality.
Cowed by her domineering mother (a tour-de-force performance by Barbara Hershey) and in the thrall of her lecherous ballet teacher (played by the wolfish Vincent Cassel), Nina’s sanity begins to unravel as she pursues the dream lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. The catalyst for her final meltdown is her explosive rivalry with the licentious Lily, who wants the same part.
Like The Wrestler, Black Swan is unflinching in its depiction of the physical and psychological suffering performers endure in their quest for perfection. Many of the images in Black Swan are as disturbing and vivid as the punishments dealt out to Mickey Rourke’s character in the ring in The Wrestler.
Much of the acclaim that Portman has won for the role rests on the physical demands it makes on her. Aronofsky coaxes a great performance out of an actress of limited range, with Portman biting back the suppressed pain and desire that well up in her character until they explode from her in the climactic scenes of the film. Mila Kunis walks away with many scenes with an unrestrained, sexually charged performance as Lily.
Another standout performance comes from Winona Ryder as the volatile prima ballerina cast aside in favour of the younger Nina. It’s a piece of casting as appropriate as the director’s choice of Rourke for the lead role in The Wrestler. If this film had been made 20 years earlier, before Ryder’s fall from the graces of Hollywood, she would almost certainly have taken the lead role.
Black Swan trailer (via YouTube):
Black Swan isn’t quite in the class of The Wrestler, which I would rank as one of the 10 best movies of the past five years. At times, the film tilts so far towards melodrama and Hammer House shock theatrics that it is in danger of capsizing. It’s testimony to Aronofsky’s skill that he keeps the film on an even keel when his imagery is at its most overblown.
Black Swan’s single biggest fault lies in the way that it explains, with the patience of a whispering parent interpreting the plot of a movie to a child, how the events unfolding on screen parallel those of Tchaikovsky ‘s ballet. One would think that a director as intelligent as Aronofsky would give his audience a little more credit. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
- Black Swan opens in SA cinemas on 4 February