Saturday, 12 February 2011

Film Review: Black Swan (2010)

Darren Aronofsky was never going to create a typical telling of Swan Lake. And in Black Swan he has truly outdone himself; striking visuals, terrifying imagery, and excellent performances have all come together to create one of the most compelling films of recent years. It may be utterly bonkers but it’s incredibly entertaining.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a woman who has been trying to get a leading ballet role for years with little success. As with all dancers she’s facing the very real prospect that she will never make her mark, and will simply vanish into obscurity. But when the lead of Swan Lake is retired (Winona Ryder, in a cutting casting as the has-been dancer), Nina sees her chance for the role of a lifetime. But the executive director, played by a suitably scathing Vincent Cassel, is not so sure she’s up to it. As he tells her, he has no doubt she can play the sweet and innocent white swan, but she must get in touch with her darker, sensual side to capture the essence of the black swan on the stage.

At this point the film starts to get a bit strange. As the rash on Nina’s back grows so does the audience’s discomfort. And there are some truly cringe worthy scenes. But at no point are we entirely sure if what we’re seeing is real. In trying to break down her own boundaries Nina’s sanity starts to look all the more questionable, and no wonder when her mother (Barbara Hershey) refuses to let her lock her door, dress herself or be independent in anyway. And then there’s the competition; a new girl has just joined the ballet company who is younger than Nina and very much in touch with her sexuality. She seems to want to be her friend but we’re never sure what her game may be, or even if she’s playing one.

Don't you just hate it when you're reflection does this?
Black Swan is a brilliant study in the breakdown of the mind. Desperation for perfection and the fear of failure feature heavily but it also deals with self hatred and fear of sexuality. Natalie Portman has moved on from those safe roles of old and here does an astounding job of showing a woman who is on the brink, but doesn’t know it. The camera is almost always focused in on her face, giving us a claustrophobic and intimate point of view, which ensures we only see things from Nina's perspective. The interplay between her and Hershey is captivating and hideous to watch, and Portman's thin frame only adds to the impression of Nina being an incredibly beautiful but fragile character ready to break, mentally and physically, at any moment.

And you thought you got bad hay-fever.
Black Swan is a wonderful allegory for the story of Swan Lake, if the ballet were told from a psychological viewpoint rather than as a romantic fantasy. We begin with the white swan, innocent and pure, but slowly see her transformation into the black swan, until the boundaries between the two begin to fall down. The excellent CGI used in the film perfectly demonstrates this, and the scene where we see the black swan for the first time is breathtaking and oddly beautiful. This isn’t a film to go into expecting an easy time, and some may find themselves bored if they don’t go with it or question the over the top scenes. But if you allow yourself to be swept away on the swan’s wings you will be richly rewarded.

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