Staff Recommendation: Black Swan

Cornerhouse Usher and Front of House Manager Matt Aistrup reviews Black Swan

“Watch the way she moves…she’s not faking it” These words whispered to Nina (Natalie Portman) by her director (Vincent Cassel) about her rival (Mila Kunis) are central to Black Swan. Most performers would assert that acting is about truth and that idea would seem to hold true in ballet as well.

Nina is given the role of the Swan Queen in a forthcoming production of Swan Lake, easily playing the virginal White Swan but struggling to open herself up to the passion and darkness of the Black Swan, which she must also play. Thomas, the director, encourages her to explore her own darkness in preparation for the role and so begins an incredibly audacious exploration in to the process of embodying a role. It is always interesting to see how far a performer will go to become somebody else, especially when hearing about Natalie Portman’s five hour a day training regime, but ultimately a great performance must come from within the person playing the role.

What Black Swan does is turn this interior process inside out so that we see Nina’s anxieties, discoveries and explorations manifest themselves in the world around her as she prepares for the opening night. I heard a reviewer say recently that Black Swan is “like Showgirls made by David Cronenberg” but this does it a disservice. At its heart Black Swan is a film that questions the importance of identity (real or projected) for any performer taking on a challenging role. How well do I know my role? How well do I know myself? Does the role define me?

The films, therefore, that readily spring to mind are Cassavete’s Opening Night, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Not that Black Swan isn’t as overblown as Showgirls, or as downright strange as anything made by Cronenberg. In fact, the director, Darren Aronofsky seems to have thrown everything he can think of into the mix, cranking up the visuals, noise and melodrama to such a dizzying effect that it takes a good few hours to fully digest what you’ve just seen.

A wealth of themes and ideas are crammed into Black Swan, with not all of them fully explored and many left open-ended but it rattles along at such a pace that this only adds to the overall experience.

Subtle it ain’t, but if its passionate filmmaking you’re after, well, let’s just say Aronofsky isn’t faking it.

Cornerhouse AV Technicain Dave Petty reviews Black Swan

I’m sure it must be bad form to start a review with a quote from a website forum post, but this seemed ever so apt:

muchobenny: ‘This film was as subtle as a brick and I felt like I was being beaten to death with it.’
horribleives: ‘That pretty much sums up why I loved it. Subtlety’s over-rated.’

‘Subtle’ is an adjective that can be both a blessing and a curse for a potential Oscar candidate. Use it well, and you can sweep the board with a nuanced performance here or a bleak masterpiece there. Ditch it altogether, and you end up taking home the Best Picture gong for Crash. But in the case of Black Swan, the lack of anything even approaching subtle could be its awards-baiting downfall. But to paraphrase George Clooney’s Fred Friendly in Good Night, and Good Luck., if you’re gonna go down, you might as well go down swinging. Quite simply, this is toweringly insane, operatic nightmare horror on a dizzyingly intimate but effortlessly grand scale.

I won’t spend my time here recounting too much of the plot; Portman’s dedicated but fragile Nina gets thrust into the lead role of a new performance of Swan Lake, only to have her ballet mojo thrown into disarray by Mila Kunis’ Lily, a seductive newcomer to the company who fits in with almost worrying ease, her relaxed, flirtatious demeanour a stark counterpart to Nina’s perpetual, mounting distress. Throw in the controlling matriarch (Barbara Hershey) and the ageing star (Winona Ryder) torn brutally from the limelight by Vincent Cassel’s overlord of a ballet director (equal parts manipulative teacher and sexual predator), and you have every ingredient needed for melodrama to escalate. And boy, does it escalate. And amidst the emotional minefield, there’s the innocent-looking scratches on Nina’s back developing into blood-seeping wounds that won’t go away, to visceral physical transformations that leave little to the imagination, all invaded with handheld cinematography in permanent close-up. It’s these full-blown swan-dives into body horror that push the unfolding drama to heights rarely seen in an awards season film, let alone a film that is first and foremost about ballet.

It is this jarring contrast between the real and the unreal which appears to have caused somewhat of a critical backlash against Black Swan, but for me it’s a sign of director Darren Aronofsky’s bravura and daring that he has been willing to ‘go there’, to be uncompromising about the lengths people will go to embody a role, the line between reality and fantasy becoming so blurred that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not, for both the character and for the audience. As with other reviews, much has been made of the constant use of mirrors and the idea of the doppelgänger which, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, is in some traditions seen as a representation of evil and as an omen of death. For those familiar with the story of Swan Lake this will come as no surprise (for those that aren’t, this film serves as a perfectly manic introduction), but it’s Aronofsky’s desire to represent so much so literally that will ultimately divide audiences.

While Black Swan can hardly be considered original (comparisons have already been made with Cronenberg’s The Fly, Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Argento’s Suspiria), it’s surprising just how original it comes off, how certain images linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled. It’s been a while since I emerged from a cinema genuinely buzzing with excitement about what I’d just seen, cinema so ludicrously over-the-top and magisterial in its madness that you can’t help but be sucked in. Portman genuinely does give the performance of her career, but it would have been hard for her not to with such craftsmanship at work behind the lens.

Go see it on the big screen, and make sure you sit near the front!