Movie Review of the Week – Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell

Is it Oscar time already? The annual barrage of cinematic Oscar-baiting flawed character studies is coming thick and fast. The King’s Speech, 127 Hours and Black Swan all opened within a few weeks of each other. Strategically placed to ensure they are at the forefront of the academy’s consciousness, February has been a veritable bloodbath of promotional frenzy. A month rife with the unusual Hollywood veiled modesty and deflected platitudes from those in contention for Oscar glory on February 27th. Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s latest is certain to contend.

Aronofsky’s early work set him apart as an exciting visual auteur. Pi’s monochrome styling and Requiem For a Dream’s lush aesthetics, replete with busy hip-hop montages and quick cuts marked him as a creative force to be reckoned with. His next feature, the bloated but underrated The Fountain marked something of a sea change. He followed the grand strokes of The Fountain with a more personal and intimate work. The Wrestler enabled Aronofsky to focus on characterisation and the development of relationships. It garnered widespread critical acclaim and re-asserted Mickey Rourke as a Hollywood talent. Not an easy task.

His latest and most fully realised feature Black Swan, finds impressive subtlety and it disorientatingly crosses genres from a seemingly linear plot. What opens as a straightforward examination of the competitive world of professional ballet, gradually mutates into a deep exploration of purity and corruptibility. Portman’s Nina is a technically astute dancer. Her naive, almost virginal character is adrift in a sea of back-stabbing, blood-thirsty competitiveness. Flashdance this ain’t.

Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Nina in Black Swan is peerless. She drips with aching vulnerability throughout and assuredly makes the role her own, I struggle to think of anyone else who could come close to matching her empathetic performance. Portman exudes a physical and emotional vulnerability that is painfully delicate and tender. She lost 20 pounds to play Nina and spent almost a year training tirelessly for the part. Portman’s sacrifice in the pursuit of perfection will undoubtedly place her as firm favourite for Best Actress come Oscars Night. Aronofsky says of Nina’s evolution: “It’s about transformation, it’s ultimately a werewolf movie. Swan Lake is about a girl trapped as a swan, at night she’s half swan half human, so I saw it as a werewolf movie.”, the film definitely mutates into something quite dark and akin to a troubled psychological horror movie. It is often difficult to watch, I was more grossed out by some of the displays of contorted physicality in Black Swan than ‘that’ scene in 127 hours. The graceful beauty outwardly seen cloaks a dark turmoil.

The excellent supporting cast bolsters Portman’s tour de force portrayal.Vincent Cassel’s company director ‘Thomas’ controls his dancers through dark sexuality and brash arrogance. Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) lives her failed dreams of becoming a ballet star through her daughter, they share an uncomfortably close relationship and she is visibly unhinged, teetering on the brink of collapse. Mila Kunis’ Lily is brilliantly disconnected, Nina’s view of her rival is eerily distorted as her dream world infiltrates her reality. All of the support cast help and hinder Nina in her pursuit of perfection. Perfection requires sacrifice, in Nina’s case she quickly loses her grip on reality.

The film is frighteningly powerful. Every aspect has been obsessed over and perfected, there is a contemporary interpretation of the traditional ‘Swan Lake’ score imagined by regular Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell which is suggestive of underlying tension and a dark undertow. Even the incidental sound effects are vital; as Aronofsky states “Most of the sounds in this film are manipulated swan sound. Everything from a flushing a toilet, subway… a swan noise… Sound is what takes it to the next level, I always make it part of that collaboration in filmmaking.” Aronofsky frequently uses the reflected reality of mirrors on screen, suggestive of the conflict between good and evil in Swan Lake. They serve to disorientate both Nina and the audience. The complete product is a fully accomplished masterpiece of modern cinema; displaying refined control, gripping tension and a superlative individual performance at its emotional centre.

2011 : A Film Odyssey is the movie review site of Chris Vaughan.

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