Monday, January 10, 2011

New Release Review: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Darren Aronofsky's fifth feature film, Black Swan, has been one of the most anticipated releases of 2010. With a scheduled release in Australia on the 20th January, I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening of the long-awaited film at the Palace Cinemas yesterday. Craving another viewing, and still embedded in my memory and haunting my subconscious, I was completely blown away by this harrowing psycho-sexual horror/thriller which confirms that Mr Aronofsky is one of the best directors in the world. Few filmmakers would dare to make a film that is so garish, visceral and nightmarish as the monumental accomplishment that is Black Swan, which joins The Social Network and Inception as the only recent examples of instant classics. Featuring jarring hand-held cinematography, jaw-dropping production design, incredibly brave performances (especially from the soon-to-be Oscar winner Natalie Portman), and scored to the brilliant work of Tchaikovsky, this cinematic masterpiece is a vicious assault on the senses that is sure to have you shivering on the edge of your seat all the way until the unforgettable finale.

Aronofsky's impressive resume is incomprehensibly good; his features include Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006) and The Wrestler (2008). The latter, which won Aronofsky a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and should have led to an Oscar win for Mickey Rourke is, in my opinion, the best film of 2008. Black Swan works as a companion piece to The Wrestler and in an interview with Aronofsky for MTV Movies Blog, he compares the two films: "Wrestling some consider the lowest art, if they would even call it art, and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves." Black Swan is essentially about a ballerina consumed by her desire to dance, and the film examines the price of artistic beauty and perfection.

Black Swan centres on a production of Swan Lake by a prestigious New York ballet company, who is choosing to cast a new young star to embody the dual role of the White/Black Swan Queen. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), one of the most technically proficient and hardest working in the Academy, is competing for the role with a bunch of other girls, including a newcomer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis). The ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is reluctant to cast Nina in the role of the Swan Queen because he feels that she in unable to embody the passion and sensuality required for the part of the Black Swan. Nina is strangely childlike, sexually innocent and emotionally repressed but determined to embody perfection in her performance. She lives at home with her caring but dangerously overprotective mother Erica, (Barbara Hershey). The early sequences reveal that the relationship between Nina and her mother is uncomfortably odd. Erica is clearly encroaching and overprotective and has deprived Nina of the worldly experience she requires for the role, leaving her the subject of ridicule and dissent amongst the more mature other girls. Erica, a former dancer who retired when she became pregnant with Nina, is clearly living out her own glory through the success of Nina.

Following a disappointing audition, Nina approaches Leroy and confronts him about the role. Leroy, who has a reputation of making sexual advances on his pupils, is attracted to Nina and kisses her. She bites him on the lip, which exhilarates him and is the first display of her darker potentials. The following day he casts her as the lead. Overwhelmed with relief and joy, Nina runs to the bathroom to call her mother to tell her the news. This is one of the most moving sequences in the film as Nina is barely able to keep her composure as she ecstatically delivers the exciting news. Upon exiting the stall she finds "WHORE" written on the bathroom in lipstick, which she hastily tries to remove. Even during these early sequences Nina is displaying a number of psychotic symptoms and suffering from vivid hallucinations that the audience often find difficult to differentiate from her reality. Among these symptoms are an itchy red scratch that appears on her back and gradually worsens, her fingernails and toenails begin to bleed and fall off, and she becomes paranoid when she begins to see her face superimposed on Lily, her understudy who she believes is determined to take away her role. Nina becomes obsessed with Lily, who functions as Nina's doppelganger, embodying none of Nina's precision and grace, but the flaunting sexuality that Leroy has asked Nina to bring to her Swan Queen.

While suffering from these mental aggravations, she is also likely affected from malnutrition, and is receiving pressure from Leroy, who has since announced her succession of the former Swan Queen Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), as he becomes frustrated by her continual display of "frigid" dancing and refusal to let herself be absorbed by the requirements of the role. With influence from Roman Polanski's Repulsion and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, the second half of the film is amongst the most breathtaking outlandish cinema I have ever witnessed. Throughout the second half we bear witness to Nina's tragic and sexually confronting transformation from a sweet, innocent girl into an out-of-control psychotic, who becomes horrifyingly overwhelmed by the immense pressure of the role, the violent episodes of paranoia that plague her consciousness, and her willingness to push her body to extreme lengths of perfection to ultimately draw the adoration she seeks.

The performances are brave and absolutely mind-blowing, especially from Natalie Portman, who delivers what will likely remain her greatest performance. Present in every sequence, the physicality of her performance and her dancing skills are impressive. She is so emotionally diverse here as she portrays a woman of such vulnerability and innocence, yet at the same time suffering from such heart wrenching desire and struggling to remain a grasp on reality. She is beyond perfect here. I believe Natalie did most of the dancing, with the exception of the most difficult parts. This young lady will have an Oscar coming her way in a few months. Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is also very good in a charismatic sexually charged performance. Both women are radiant and share a particularly explicit sex sequence. The always excellent Vincent Cassel (La Haine and Eastern Promises) is another standout as his stature and physicality effortlessly commands the screen. Barbara Hersey is scary as Nina's mother, whose years of regret and disappointment are etched in her gravelly facial features, as she obsessively coaches and scolds her daughter.

The cinematography of long-time Aronofsky collaborator, Matthew Libatique is once again stunning. The dance sequences are beautifully captured, and the dizzying circling of Nina and her fellow dancers is dazzling. But most of the hand-held camera work is raw, jarring and unstable that brilliantly draws us into Nina's volatile world, tracking her through the journey but simultaneously embodying us with her and smothering us with her personal burden. For example, like Aronofsky did with The Wrestler, there are long close-up follow shots of the central protagonists, in this case Nina as she travels to the theatre for rehearsal. The camera is positioned to the side of her on the train observing her reflection in the glass, and when she is walking it is positioned directly behind her. We either experience a cut to her direct POV or the camera shifts to her side positioning her on the extreme edge of the frame and showing where she is looking at the same time. It's a really effective method that forces us to assign ourselves with this character; everything that happens in this film is from her perspective and this becomes more important as the film progresses. The use of mirrors throughout is also very apparent throughout, as Nina envisions herself reflected in Lily, she also hallucinates an alternate form of herself appearing in her own reflection. In almost every sequence, Nina finds herself reflected back upon herself, for her own personal judgment, which ultimately becomes the most destructive judgment of all.

Another effective technical feature is the films sharp editing, which results in several terrifying scares for the audience. I would argue that Black Swan is a horror film, particularly during one such terrifying breakdown sequence, which includes a montage of ever-worsening hallucinations. The suspense is stifling, and the sickening visuals, along with the macabre set design, most notably the labyrinth of tunnels present within the depths of the theatre, the red neon-lit change rooms, and the layout of Nina's poorly lit house make for very effective psychological horror. Gloriously orchestrating all this is the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which is collaborated and altered in a variety of clever ways by Clint Mansell, another Aronofsky regular. Mansell, who is responsible for the brilliant original score of Requiem for a Dream, attempted to score the film based on the Tchaikovsky ballet, but with radical changes to the music, including pieces from The Chemical Brothers. The story of Nina, in some ways, follows the story of the Swan Queen role she is assigned to perform. She effortlessly embodies the role of the White Swan, but through her desire for recognition and respect from Leroy finds she has the role of the Black Swan trapped inside her, waiting to be unleashed by her repressed emotion and sensuality. The nightclub sequence, which is one of many memorable sequences, is a breakthrough in this sense. When Lily, her understudy and rival, becomes the one that Leroy desires for the role, Nina chooses to destroy herself to achieve artistic perfection, but this is also fuelled by bitter disappointment in herself and jealousy towards Lily.
I expect Black Swan to be leading contender in this years Oscars race, with nominations and victories coming in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director (Darren Aronofsky) and Best Lead Actress (Natalie Portman). I also expect nominations for Supporting Actress (Mila Kunis), Original Screenplay (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin), Cinematography (Matthew Libatique), Film Editing (Andrew Weisblum), Art Direction and Makeup. As one of the most visceral, surreal and haunting artistic achievements in the last decade of cinema, few films can compare to Black Swan. While it has divided audiences, and hasn't received the unanimous acclaim that The Wrestler did, I would argue that it is a better film, and the peak in the already impressive career of Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman's sublime performance is still resonating with me, and I will be one of the first in the door to see it again on January 20th when it receives a release Australia wide. I can't say enough about this film, it just needs to be seen by everyone, and I am confident it will enjoy a lengthy and successful run at the Box Office.

My Rating: 5 Stars

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