movie film review | chris tookey

Black Swan

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  Black Swan Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
7.34 /10
Natalie Portman , Mila Kunis , Vincent Cassel
Full Cast >

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, John McLaughlin

Released: 2010
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 103

Wow! A 21st century masterpiece.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Black Swan is one of the finest movies of the last few years; it is also sure to be among the most unjustly vilified and misunderstood.

The most uncontroversial element, and the one that deserves to be praised unanimously, is Natalie Portman’s performance. This is acting of extraordinary power, all the more astonishing from an actress whose performances in the Star Wars movies were ridiculed for their woodenness. There hasn’t been a more empathetic portrayal of obsessive perfectionism. Her dancing is impressive, too – perhaps not prima ballerina standard, but good enough to pass muster with the general public, and shot sufficiently brilliantly – especially in the opening and closing scenes - to justify comparisons with Moira Shearer’s bravura turn in The Red Shoes. At this year’s Oscars, you need look no further for Best Actress.

Because the central character is a ballerina, both the Guardian and Radio 4’s Today Programme sent ballet dancers to review it. Unsurprisingly, they achieved near-perfect, wrong-headed unanimity in condemning it as an outrageously over-the-top collection of cliches about the ballet world, and a foul libel on their profession. Such a response is understandable but sublimely irrelevant to the film’s merits and comically blinkered as to the director’s achievement.

Asking dance professionals to review Black Swan for its realism is like inviting motel-owners to judge whether Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is an accurate portrait of their own occupation, or polling inhabitants of New York’s Gothic apartment block, the Dakota (notoriously used as a location for Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby), as to whether its inhabitants are really all Satanists. Black Swan is not a drama-documentary about ballerinas, nor does it set out to be; it is a deliberately stylised view of artistic obsession and descent into madness.

It is expressionistic in the same way as Shutter Island, Fight Club and Repulsion. All are examinations of a soul in torment. None is a fair representation of police detectives, office workers or attractive blonde Parisiennes living alone.

I have also heard grumblings from critical colleagues that the film exhibits little sense of humour. This is true. However, it is not setting out to be The Importance of Being Earnest, nor indeed The Hangover. It is a depiction of serious mental illness. In such a context, I would be prepared to argue that levity is inappropriate. I remain unconvinced that King Lear would be improved by the insertion of a few “knock knock” jokes, or that Hamlet could usefully be enlivened by a couple of scenes in which the leading character’s trousers fall down.

Others have muttered that the film is “hysterical”. Since it is a portrait of a hysteric, that too is completely appropriate.

Darren Aronofsky’s film opens with an anxiety dream. 'I had the craziest dream last night, about a girl who was turned into a swan," says Natalie Portman’s voice-over. The whole movie is, in a sense, that nightmare.

The story is about an up-and-coming ballerina called Nina (Portman) who lives only for her art. She is technically proficient but has more than a hint of emotional coldness and sexual frigidity. Her pink, fluffy bedroom suggests that she has been infantilized by her sinister, domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), a frustrated ex-dancer who blames our heroine for scuppering her own hopes of stardom.

A new production of Swan Lake is in preparation, and the company’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new dancer to fill the ballet shoes of his ageing, neurotic prima ballerina (the gaunt and mad-looking Winona Ryder, a cruel but effective piece of casting). He sees that Nina has the technique to dance the white swan, but lacks the darkness and sensuality required to play her black doppelganger.

Nina discovers that she has a new, earthier, sexier rival, Lilly (Mila Kunis) from outside the company. Just like Bette Davis in All About Eve, Nina wonders if she is being undermined. Is Lilly genuinely friendly, or does she have lesbian tendencies? Is the artistic director trying to draw out Nina’s sensuality for the sake of the production, or is he trying to seduce her? Is Nina’s mother really sympathetic to her daughter’s aspirations, or is she selfishly trying to live through her?

As in Aronofsky’s last movie, The Wrestler, the central character suffers intense physical pain in order to please an audience; but is this a necessary price to pay, or born out of an obsessive need to self-harm?

Black Swan has overtones of many backstage musicals, most obviously 42nd Street, A Star Is Born and (in its nightmarish aspects) Cabaret. Likewise, there are elements of paranoid Gothic horror, with many an echo of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

But the film is much more than horror hokum or campy pastiche. It is a memorable depiction of creative obsession, and the overwhelming physical and psychological demands of creating and interpreting great art. Anyone who has ever been fully committed to an artistic project will recognise that the process almost invariably involves an element of self-torture.

Those who have not put themselves through such a process may sniff disapprovingly, and feel that Black Swan is a preposterous overcooking of familiar ingredients, or – worse still – a self-indulgent exercise in extreme luvvyism. But anyone who feels that will have missed the point, which is that high achievement – in the arts, sports or any other field – does require an element of masochism and sacrifice. Excellence is rarely achieved easily.

Black Swan was never intended to be a film that exposes sensational scandals about the cloistered world of ballet; it is a mesmerizing evocation and illumination of the quest for perfection, and the awful price that must sometimes be paid. Just as Aronofsky’s previous masterpiece, Requiem for a Dream, captured the seductiveness and horror of drug addiction, this is a miraculous account of the quest for success, taken to destructive extremes. It’s one of the bravest, most visceral and supremely talented movies I have ever seen.

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