Tuesday 15 February 2011

Black Swan

I had the craziest dream last night. About a girl who was turned into a swan. She needs love to break the spell, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.

I had been looking forward to watching this film ever since first hearing about the premise. The professional dance training in my past and connection to the world of ballet combined with my admiration for the films of Aronofsky and his last one, The Wrestler, in particular meant that my usual impatience was magnified as the release date approached. As it happened I ended up watching it around Valentine's Day, continuing my rather twisted take on romance (The first gift I gave my now wife was a copy of Angels by Denis Johnson in which a man and woman meet on a Greyhound bus and both end up in various forms of incarceration) and was pleased that the film managed to survive my high expectations and some of the criticism that has been levelled at it recently. It is by no means a perfect film, and certainly not to all tastes. A bit like going to watch classical ballet itself, if you don't get it then it's going to be a very weird evening, if you can understand the language and go with it then it can be a transcendent pleasure. The film is modelled on Swan Lake itself which is why I've included the quote above. A young dancer perfectly suited to the role of the virginal White Swan has to find within her the sensuality and darkness required to play her evil twin, the Black Swan. Precision and restraint get in the way of passion and her obsessive focus begins to alter her perception of those around her.

Let us be clear first: this is NOT a film about ballet. The recent newspaper articles that packed professional dancers off to the cinema in order to provide their opinion on the veracity of the world depicted and the ballet technique of Natalie Portman were so misguided it isn't even funny. This is a film about madness and obsession, a companion piece to The Wrestler which featured a character similarly incapable of moving away from the world to which he had dedicated himself (and in particular, his body); it is a horror film rather than a realistic depiction of the backbiting and ambition of the American ballet scene. That said, Aronofsky shows in some telling detail the physicality of dance. The shots of pointe-shoes being broken down and customised, the bone-crunching and clicking as dancers adopt these unnatural positions, the sweat, the heavy breathing, the broken toenails, the hard skin; all brilliantly observed and true.

 Natalie Portman has been hailed by some for the training she underwent to portray a ballet dancer (beginning a year before filming) and vilified by others for not being convincingly up to scratch. If that's how you're watching the film then I'm afraid you're missing so much but let me say as someone who trained professionally but hasn't danced in a long while (a bit like Portman) that I couldn't hope to come within a country mile of what she achieves in this film. Her body is starved down to that level that allows you to see the individual muscles moving in her back as she moves her arms up and down and her nervous and frail demeanor is visible in minute detail on her face where tiny muscle twitches and tics express so much. She dances convincingly but more importantly gives a performance of such dedication and commitment that it blows the theory that the role should have been given to a dancer who could act out of the water. Most of the actresses in Hollywood couldn't hope to match Portman here let alone the dancer/actresses.

There is excellent support from Vincent Cassel as the exploitative choreographer and Barbara Hershey as the domineering and bitter mother. Mila Kunis is sultry in her role as the competition and the only bum piece of casting comes in the form of Winona Ryder who has always been beautiful, never been able to act and couldn't convince anyone that she is, was or ever could be a ballet soloist. Aronofsky's handheld camera floats continuously, miraculously avoiding its reflection in the many mirrors and keeping close scrutiny on the actors helping to build the tension as it closes in or Portman particularly. The film is underscored brilliantly by music developed from Tschiakovsky and a sound design that heightens breathing and the sounds of the swan to chilling effect. You might criticise the film for being too insular, perhaps a little repetitive, I wondered whether it might have been a little shorter or even had the bulk of the dialogue stripped away, making it even closer to the ballet from which it is inspired. The overall tone is so heightened that there are even moments that make you want to laugh. We're not used to this tone in film making and certainly weren't prepared for it by The Wrestler but both films however different their styles are driven by the same theme of obsession, something of a unifying theme in Aronofsky's work. Where will it take him, and us, next?


kimbofo 15 February 2011 at 10:33  

You've absolutely convinced me I need to see this.

I've heard a lot of criticism from ballet quarters, so I'm grateful to you for clarifying that it's NOT a film about ballet.

Nice to see Portman get the best actress BAFTA, too. What chance of repeating it with an Oscar?

kimbofo 15 February 2011 at 10:35  

How weird... "stuff" is me - kimbofo. Have no idea where that alias came from...

William Rycroft 15 February 2011 at 11:21  

Whether you're stuff or kimbofo, thanks for the comment!

I'm not sure about the Oscars but I'd say she's not only with a good shout but I don't know what else she would have to do to get one.

As for the ballet question I think that the realism of The Wrestler has given audiences a bum steer on this film. If you went to it thinking it was about the pressures of achieving success within the structures of a ballet company then you may well watch in derision as it turns into melodramatic horror. Some reviews have mentioned terms like danse macabre and grand guignol highlighting that this really is a film influenced by theatre, something we are not at all used to (in fact it's usually the opposite if you look at the cast lists of a lot of West End plays).

I think it's well worth watching Kim and can't wait to hear your thoughts.

Rebecca,  15 February 2011 at 18:38  

Enjoyed reading this and intend to watch it soon. Glad of the clarification on what to expect as being from a dance background it is all too easy to presume that technique and the reality of what we have experienced will somehow be portrayed. Am looking forward to it even more now.

William Rycroft 17 February 2011 at 22:30  

There's a bit of reality in there Rebecca but things very quickly stray. I hope you enjoy it, do come back and share your thoughts.

Lee Monks 31 March 2011 at 14:57  

'...I wondered whether it might have been a little shorter or even had the bulk of the dialogue stripped away, making it even closer to the ballet from which it is inspired.'

I quite agree, and forgot to make a similar point when I put a review of this up. The oneiric quality that the film has demands much less dialogue interruption - and Black Swan would be even better were Aronofsky to put out a director's cut with this in mind.

William Rycroft 31 March 2011 at 22:42  

Thanks for the comment Lee, I've just been over to your site to read your own review which is great. Damn, you see a lot of films! I am quite envious.

Lee Monks 1 April 2011 at 14:20  

Cheers! Not as many as I'd like to! Just watched Source Code funnily enough - I think Peter Bradshaw got a bit giddy there!

William Rycroft 1 April 2011 at 14:37  

Oh no! I was really looking forward to that. Loved Moon, like Jake Gyllenhal. I did wonder whether Bradshaw might have had too much pick n mix.

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