FILM REVIEW: Black Swan (2011)

Black Swan (USA, 2011)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey

What is it about ballet and madness that continues to entrance filmmakers? In the 1940s we had The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger's masterful look at art, love, jealousy and fantasy set against the backdrop of a ballet company. In the 1970s we had Suspiria, Dario Argento's brutal masterpiece about the fate of a young ballerina modelled on Snow White. And now we have Black Swan from Darren Aronofsky, one of the maddest and most unrelenting films you will see all year.Aronofsky has always been an uncompromising director, having put his audiences through the mill with Requiem for a Dream and tested their patience with The Fountain (think Terrence Malick in space, only not as good). Black Swan continues this trend, beginning at a point of nerve-shredding intensity and never letting you relax until our heroine lies bleeding at the end. In the hands of a less confident director, the film's shrieking intensity and over-cranked visual style would have made the finished project nothing short of ridiculous. But for all the elements which don't quite work, it somehow holds together, for good or bad, as something genuinely jaw-dropping.As so often happens, the release of Black Swan has prompted a discussion about the nature of its subject matter, specifically over how realistic is its depiction of ballet, both physically and psychologically. On the first point, the film is one of the best in recent memory at putting dancing up on screen. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis went through six months of intense training for the roles, so that they physical resemble ballerinas as well as being able to do most of their own dancing. Aronofsky does not rely overly on editing to show the best possible version of a given routine, giving us a sense of scale which Rob Marshall's works do not.Ultimately, however, to focus on whether or not Black Swan accurately depicts the world of ballet is to somewhat miss the point. The film is much more of a study of a character in disintegration, about the physical and emotional consequences that come from devotion to one's art, and how such devotion can quickly tip over into obsession and delusion. The film's status as a full-on visual experience is mitigated only by the deep emotional attachment we have for the central character, who appears in every frame and is the only thing we have approaching a reliable narrator.

In both its subject matter and execution, Black Swan is a deeply cine-literate film which references a whole host of other works. It is at heart a genre piece, combining elements of psychological and expressionist horror with the character study elements of an introspective thriller. This does not denigrate or compromise the boldness of Aronofsky's vision, but it is worth being aware of these references as a means of explaining and responding to the film.The film owes a large debt to the works of Powell and Pressburger, particularly The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Like the former, it is not so much a film about ballet as a film about personal trauma which just happens to have ballet in it. It is every bit as melodramatic (in the best possible way) and similar themes are explored, such as the jealousy of the various dancers and the way in which the pursuit of perfection leads to hallucination or fantasy.

Both films are striking in their use of colour, from the strobe-red lighting in the nightclub to the beaming white stage lamps during the actual performance. But where Powell goes for wide-eyed, almost childlike fantasy, Aronofsky is much more lurid in approach, playing up the sexual currents in the story rather more. After a fundraising evening, Vincent Cassel tells Natalie Portman to lighten up by going home and touching herself, and earlier on he dismisses her attempts at dancing the Black Swan as un-seductive, adding that her male colleagues wouldn't look at her twice.Stripped of all its trappings, Black Swan is a relatively simple story about the conflict between light and darkness and the need to be in touch with the latter. Nina's physical conflict is plain to see; aside from all the shots of her skeletal body, the film devotes many painful frames to splitting toenails, cracking feet and disguising the strange rashes on her shoulder blades. But like Black Narcissus, Aronofsky's main means of expressing the difference between dark and light is through an exploration of sexuality.The relationship between Nina and Lily is to a large extent a restaging of the clash in Black Narcissus between Sisters Clodagh and Ruth. In their confrontation towards the end of the film, these two are offered up to us as two opposing sides of womanhood, with the latter being driven almost to madness by her overt sexualisation and the former being stymied by her desire for purity. Nina's purity is not only physical (she is a virgin) but technical, which in the end prevents her from being a great dancer as opposed to a very good one. Lily meanwhile has all the wild spirit and seduction needed to be great, but she turns up late, picks up strangers and parties all night long.While this dichotomy works well, it is ironically in its most lurid aspects that the film begins to come apart. Even if we accept the hysterical tone of the film, certain moments still feel out of place or overdone. The scene of the dirty old man eyeing up Nina on the train is very uncomfortable and far too literal-minded in a film which is trying to be symbolic. And then there is the hallucinatory lesbian sex between Nina and Lily, which represents the same act of symbolic self-love of Betty and Rita in Mulholland Drive. But whereas in David Lynch's film that scene felt relatively substantial, in Black Swan it doesn't feel quite so essential, and its ability to titillate certain audience members threatens to drag the whole story into route-one exploitation.Fortunately, the film redeems itself by not letting these wobbles undercut the general narrative. It drifts between fantasy and reality so seamlessly that the barriers between them eventually crumble, so that by the last 20 minutes, you no longer have the luxury of knowing what is real and what is not. This forces you to trust Nina, so that whatever happens on screen becomes reality in that moment and cannot be solidly questioned. No other film could string together the body-horror metamorphosis of David Cronenberg's The Fly and the blood-drenched giallo of Suspiria, two traditions which on paper are miles apart.This portion of Black Swan highlights the biggest debt of the film, which is to the work of Dario Argento; Mark Kermode famously described the ending of Black Swan as "Dario Argento on crack". Suspiria runs throughout these scenes, with the bitchy chorus line standing in for the coven of witches plotting our heroine's downfall, and Lily's alternate taking the place of the mother witch whom she must defeat. The colour palette is stretched to the outer limits, with the blood and Black Narcissus eyes being the same Day Glo red as the blood as Argento's work. For all the well-executed mirror tricks and CGI doppelgangers, this is the moment in which the film fully takes flight.Black Swan is an utterly mad film which manages somehow to hang together in the face of many striking and rivalling elements. Its closest comparison from a structural viewpoint is The Man Who Fell to Earth: many scenes are indulgent, or uncomfortable, or downright unnecessary, but the overall effect is quite profound. Natalie Portman gives her best performance in a decade, banishing the memories of the Star Wars prequels and hinting at a possible new maturity in her line of work. It's not perfect, or entirely satisfying, but it remains a truly frightening experience.

Rating: 4/5

Verdict: Breathtakingly bonkers


Natasha said...

Great review! I was surprised by just how frightening it was, think the marketing was rather clever in masking that fact that it was essentially a horror flick above all else. Could also have helped it along at the Oscars - horror films are usually left by the wayside in terms of critical acclaim...

Tash Hodgson

Daniel Mumby said...

Thank you Tasha :) I agree, horror gets unfairly overlooked as the Oscars - not that they're a reliable yardstick of good films anyway

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