Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Black Swan

Nina, the pretty ballerina, thinks her big chance has come. Reigning primadonna, Beth, is growing old and going nuts. The other girls in the company gossip in the dressing/bitch-session room about it, each of them believing she deserves the crown. The decision rests with brilliante Fronsh artistic director Thomas. Whom shall he choose for his revolutionary version of Swan Lake? Who shall be she?

Ok, it’s Nina. Not a spoiler as it happens so early on and is in the trailer anyway. Nina is good, if a little formal and stiff. Her chief rival, Lilly is freer in style but lacks discipline. In other words Nina=White Swan and Lilly=Black Swan. The big problem for evil wizard Thomas is that he can’t have both in one role. So he goes with discipline (Nina) which he hopes he can break into and find the wild erotic darkness of the black swan. Ok, good.

Well, maybe not. Nina vows to overcome her stiffness and find the fire but she’s not helped by an evil stage mother whose congratulation is laced with emotional strychnine (Barbara Hershey, all faded beauty and alkaline). Nor is the potentially sabotaging force of Lilly, rejected the wizard but who might be redeemed if she can topple Nina physically, sexually, emotionally or psychologically. Lilly does have a lot of those cards in her deck and is pretty deft with them. Oh, and the former prima (Winona Ryder growing pretty strongly into her second stage as an actor) has been hit by a car, alive but stitched back together and seething in a hospital bed. Oh, Oh, Nina keeps seeing her doppelganger, passing her in the street and then increasingly in the faces of others, in shadows, and in mirrors. Could be better, this prima ballerina lark.

Darren Aronofsky (whose name sounds like a jazz band playing a punchline) is a little like a 60s rock star. Pi was a kind of first good album with two sides of strong, hummable toetappers. Requiem for a Dream played out with more confidence and daring, a kind of Revolver. The Fountain was all psychedelia. The Wrestler was back to White Album basics but with all learned lessons on board. Black Swan is kind of early 70s prog. Really, simple themes elaborated and plumbed to subterranean depths in an immediately appealing package. The only thing you don’t get is the self-indulgence. Absent are the noodling solos that go for a whole afternoon, absent, too, the pretentious overstatement of importance. Black Swan might qualify as indy but it plays like mainstream. Actually, better than that, it plays the way mainstream should, solid, constant, and as trim as a dancer.

Black Swan also does something interesting with its subject matter. Ballet as an art form fails to move me. I just don't get it. I admit that's a failing (what, after all is there to get when movement is such a fundamental tool of communication?) but there it is. It's like movies about sport. I don't dislike sport it just doesn't compel me. None of it. So if I watch something like Any Given Sunday I can get into the dialogue and politics but have to buzz out into nowhere world while the interminable football scenes are on. The Wrestler, however, made that activity worryingly dangerous for all its campy showbiz. The scenes in the ring could be harrowing.

So Black Swan first makes ballet look hard. The perfect bodies performing their stretches and contortions are depicted without fetish, these girls in their legwarmers and tracky dacks are at work. If there's skill here it's hard won. If there's art it's all the more special. This removes the sleight of hand a lot of movies about art or performance must do to divert the audience away from the lack of proof for the praise a character might receive. How would I know if one dancer was better than another? Oh right, that one works harder. The other thing Aronofsky sees to is a solid maintenance of intensity. This film is constantly on the move. Pitstopping only to get fuelled by emotional energy, plot points and the occasional second or two of light relief, the film careens to the big one at the end, the stage performance of the ballet. We still don't know if Nina can carry this off. By this time the notion that she has still to release the black swan within has taken centre stage in the drama and might be hurtling towards violence. Nina by this point is struggling to trust her eyes and sanity that all the self-discovery, self-reflection, self-eroticism, self-torture. And Aronofsky has has put so much effort into dosing his audience with just the right increments of unreality from the word go that at the climactic moment, anyone in the audience who scoffs at the sight of the transformation can only be a flat-earth cretin and shouldn't be anywhere a cinema playing this movie.

So, an almost unrelenting intensity building to a real tension by use of sinuous conception and muscular forward movement to a grand finale that bursts beyond normal reality. What does that remind you of? .... Anyone? .... Anyone! It reminds you of BALLET, doesn't it. Well it should. It reminded me of ballet and I know less about ballet than I know about cartography. That, all up, is why Black Swan is a good film. From that point you can start talking about how Natalie Portman will deserve any Oscar nomination thrown her, or that Mila Kunis, baby faced yet highly charged plays Lilly to arouse and terrify. 

And personally, I don't care if this movie is indebted to The Red Shoes, The Fly or Dario Argento. The ingredients are easily discernible but the chef has enough style to make them seem fresh to the palate. Most homage-laden films are stapled together pastiche (almost all post Romero zombie films, for eg.) and it's worth remembering that the mighty Argento used Hitchcockian suspense and cruel humour for his own purposes and created something new. That's what Aronofsky has done here. In an odd way it's kind of unassuming: he has set up his premise with the plainest concepts and simply kept the momentum healthy to provide a strong entertaining thriller that bears thought after the credits roll. Nothing revolutionary in that, it's just good.


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