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Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky 2010) – Oscars in review

June 28, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Continuing my Oscars catch-up with Natalie Portman taking ballet just a little bit too seriously…

If you’ve not seen the movie yet, please check out my introduction to Black Swan first!

Black Swan Darren Aronofsky Natalie Portman

Black Swan
(Darren Aronofsky, US, 2010)

Mentalist art-horror about a dancer learning to stop worrying and love the sex. Such perverse fun, it makes The Wrestler look like kindergarten

Darren Aronofsky’s films have always hovered over the gap between reality and fantasy. The housewife convinced she’s about to become a star, the washed-up wrestler who still thinks he is one… So it was only a matter of time before the director launched himself straight into that abyss into full-on bonkers-ville.

Black Swan demonstrates the adaptability both of Aronosky’s perennial theme of obsession and of the director’s penchant for heightened intensity that doesn’t know when to stop. The film is itself a richly allusive commentary about the artist’s need to change, its themes and imagery ricocheting between past and present. On one level, a film that is about Swan Lake is also a kind of remake of its story, but one in which Tchaikovsky’s music blurs into unsettling, atonal vibrations in the layered sound design. Conversely, Aronofsky swaps his customarily kinetic, MTV-on-acid editing style for a very formal reliance on dissolves and match cuts, but ones that emphasise a sensual slippage of narrative moorings that couldn’t be more post-modern. And – most obviously – it’s the story of an actress who escaped Star Wars prequel hell to become a bona fide leading lady.  Black Swan is a goldmine for analysis, for sure.

The film’s premise is so simple it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before: a high-art / high-concept mash-up about the struggle to find the perfect star to unite the virginal White Swan with the sexpot Black Swan. The drama practically writes itself, but the scenario toys expertly with pop-psychological notions of femininity and sexual identity. Nina is a fairytale creation, kept pure by being locked away in a castle (and, with amazing spatial awareness, Aronofsky maps out a small urban apartment into a labyrinthine prison) who needs to find herself. That sexual awakening crashes into the modern world via tabloid clichés of young abandon: drugs, clubbing and an increasingly violent hysteria.

Black Swan Natalie Portman mad ballerina

Black Swan is a modern-day successor to the weird movie awakenings of Carrie, Persona or the Roman Polanski duo of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.”

This little-girl-lost is, in other words, is doing what’s expected of her rather than what comes naturally… but the play-acting is stalked by her own id, which is desperately keen to wreak havoc for real. The film becomes a modern-day successor to other movies about women undergoing weird awakenings like Carrie, Persona or the Roman Polanski duo of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. But perhaps the most interesting comparison is with weird 1980s Euro art-horror Possession, where Isabelle Adjani’s madness manifests in mutation, Doppelgangers and sexual hysteria.

But, because this is a story about an art form – and, specifically, an art form where young women are encouraged to bare body and soul for a paying audience – it’s hard not to see an allegory of filmmaking, with Vincent Cassel’s Machiavellian impresario the director looking for his proverbial money shot. This one production of Swan Lake offers a Hollywood career in microcosm: the actress recruited from the rank-and-file, dazzled by the spotlight, and instantly subjected to the jealousy of fading and failed old order, and the threat from younger models. Aronofosky’s casting, especially of a dishevelled, disillusioned Winona Ryder, nails the comparison.

But it’s Natalie Portman’s movie. I’ve always had my doubts – even in Closer, I found her slightly mannered – but here, aptly, she loses herself in this role. There’s no escaping the merciless gaze of Aronofksy’s camera, which attaches itself to Portman’s face and never leaves it. The ballerina’s mask-like grace frames coal-black eyes in which a fire has been lit… of panic and bewilderment, as much as of ambition. The flickers of uncertainty are mesmerising, and Portman’s final transformation into the confident, complete performer is utterly convincing. If anything, Aronofsky’s imposition of melodramatic special effects – while being the aspect that makes his film stand out as a true one-off – does Portman a disserve. She doesn’t need wings to fly.

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