Saturday, 12 February 2011

Review: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is a name synonymous with unfamiliarity. In fact, you may never have heard of him. It's a name people will become more familiar with over the coming years, especially after his latest, and arguably finest effort Black Swan. He's so far notched up a concise, yet impressive filmography including 2008 Oscar almost, The Wrestler, and less well known, 10-year-in-the-making, The Fountain. Each film he produces conforms to his somewhat bleak, indie, psychological style and his latest sure fire Oscar winner is no exception.

In many ways, Black Swan has parallels to The Wrestler. Its protagonist is a lonely, tortured soul, who strives to unhealthily push themselves to their limits (and beyond) to succeed in their demanding career. Ultimately, as per Aronofsky trait, his leads inevitably struggle and dramatically crumble. Desire. Success. Obsession (sound like a Calvin Klein ad?) and downfall are character arcs he uses recurrently. The idea of a fractured, fundamentally flawed lead is always explored expertly, whether it be Randy "The Ram" Robinson, or, in this instance, ballet starlet Nina Sayers, the result is a bittersweet, psychological metamorphosis we witness throughout Black Swan.

Strongly tipped for Oscar glory after its hype even before the cinema release, Black Swan definitely has what it takes to snatch Best Director. With fierce contention from strong runners such as the brilliant True Grit competing in the catogory, other accolades may go elsewhere, but that's not to say his Swan Lake inspired tale of sexuality, psychology and ballet isn't superb.

Aforementioned similarities can be drawn to The Wrestler, especially in reference to its directing style. Aronofsky thrives on producing independent, gritty realism that oozes authenticity from the setting right down to the excellent, naturalistic performances he inspires from his cast. From early on the camera tracks Nina (Natalie Portman), following her movement as she enters rooms, turns corners, teasing with a lack of a facial or frontal shot. An identical shot is used on The Wrestler, yet to much greater effect, as tracking the rear of a petite Portman doesn't quite have the same impact as following a bruised up, hard-as-nails, grappler like Mickey Rourke, but we are assured by the feel of the scene that we are in fine auteur territory, with a highly skilled director.

The story of Black Swan focuses on Nina. A young virginal, gifted ballerina whom, with the 'support' of an overbearing, controlling Mother (Barbara Hershey), performs with a New York Ballet company run by Thomas (Vincent Cassel). It quickly becomes apparent that Nina is but a girl of innocence and has no real control over her life, let alone experience, which she has come to accept. The catalyst for the film isn't defined when Nina is cast as the Swan Lake lead, but is in fact triggered when new girl, Lily (Mila Kunis), attempts to steal the sought after role. The cracks begin to show in Nina when she is bluntly informed by Thomas that, whilst she encapsulates the White Swan perfectly, she fails to convince with her interpretation of the sexy and seductive Black Swan. Her character begins to show glimmers of a more feisty, aggressive and sensual girl becoming a woman. The film takes a dark and disturbing path towards Nina's sexual awakening and inevitable loss of innocence in order to succeed as the Black Swan.

Both Aronofksy and Portman do a truly convincing job of portraying how ambition can consume. What follows is a deep and twisted exploration of her personality, and the strain she is under, in a world that demands only the best. A down and out Beth (Winona Ryder) plays a small role as the former Swan Queen whom Nina replaces, but is a stark reminder to her, and indeed everybody in the industry, that one day you can be untouchable, then the next; thrown on the scrap heap. Beth's reaction to being replaced by a younger, more attractive model doesn't fare well, as the chilling reality of the cut throat nature of ballet is emulated nicely.

From the beginning, the theme of reflection and self perception is clear, with the use of mirrors and multiple reflections becoming a relevant and key device to represent emotional fragility and the implication of personality disorders. We are exposed to the vulnerability of Nina as our emotional protagonist begins to transform herself into the Black Swan, which in turn sends the film into even darker, sexually explicit territory that psychosomatically affects her.

The lighting throughout, in the ballet rehearsals and especially during stage performances, is simply beautiful. The grace in which dancers, including Portman and Kunis, glide with effortless fluidity is hypnotic to watch. These are the sort of scenes we see too little of, as our focus throughout is on Nina and her battle to overcome her demons. The script is a tightly written and multi layered effort and, as it's something Aronofsky's been working on for years, really shows in its quality. The pacing is never too slow, yet never rushed, forming a climactic finale of Swan Lake performance that is simply to die for.

Portman does a more than convincing job in her role as Prima Ballerina, as her months of gruelling training are evident throughtout the film. Her interpretation of a sexually repressed girl that transforms into a confident, determined and manipulative woman is the films biggest achievement. Portman's ability to convince in her role is what brings the story to life.

To fit into the theme of the film and to really feel the emotional fragility of Portman's character, Aronofsky offers, at times, a twisting narrative that suggests ambiguously contrived events to raise questions whether what we are experiencing is real or, in fact, in Nina's imagination. Similar to the ambiguous finale of The Wrestler, Aronofsky vaguely hints in a direction that invites the audience to interpret as they see fit, which is a device I admire in film making.

A master of modern film; Aronofsky
To put it simply, Black Swan is a memorable film that, with a unique style of direction, leaves a very real and lasting impression. However, whilst overall performances are good, with the exception of a compelling portrayal by Portman, no others are worthy of any real acclaim. Even if you've never seen Swan Lake or attended the theater, you can't not be left sitting in sheer admiration at both the sophistication and elegance of ballet, as well as the man you are now familiar with Darren Aronofsky, and his phenomenal vision.
Sources: Internet Movie DataBase 
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