Blood, Feathers and Mirrors

A packed Saturday – wrestling with bamboo, marching against the cuts, seeing United scrape past Southampton – ended with a couple of hours on the sofa at the Belsize Park Everyman watching the outstanding Black Swan.

This film has been both hyped and talked down to a slightly irritating degree (in the same paper, you’ll notice), making it difficult to watch without prejudice. I was expecting it to be pretentious, or at least surreally ridiculous, based on some of what I had read, but I found it chilling, disturbing and deeply enthralling. Those parts of it which were overblown didn’t interfere with my enjoyment at all. It is beautifully filmed, with lots of Hitchcockian jump-shots used to shocking effect, while the metamorphic and hallucinatory sections are handled neatly. Darren Aronofsky has crafted another masterpiece, one which has been running around my head since I saw it.

Thematically it obviously borrows from The Red Shoes, though it’s not really like it in style, and actually it is much closer to The Wrestler – note the parallels at the climax. It also has a bit of Rosemary’s Baby about it as some have noted – the oppressive apartment and particularly the corridor outside have that creepy New York bleakness. Recurrent use of mirrors – intact, fractured, broken – further blurs the lines between reality and dream, with the possibility of erroneous perception spelt out both for the characters and the viewer.

Notwithstanding the spellbinding artistry of the director, Natalie Portman is the headline story in what is certainly her greatest cinematic performance so far. She has long been among my favourite actresses, but Aronofsky seems to have cast her here precisely for her apparent ‘White Swan’-ish shortcomings. Think of Brothers and the underrated Garden State – her acting is exemplary, but that she is acting is always obvious. She is Natalie Portman as Samantha, or Natalie Portman wonderfully playing Grace Cahill, not Grace Cahill herself. I feel as though she hasn’t inhabited a part fully since Leon (admittedly I haven’t sought out The Other Boleyn Girl), and while this doesn’t undermine her ability per se, I do think it has prevented her taking a place among the greats of a not-too-great generation in the eyes of the critical community. Black Swan should definitely set those concerns aside.*

Among the three main supporting actors, Barbara Hershey is the only one with a part to draw some of the attention away from Portman. Vincent Cassell is fine as the perfectionist director, but it is a rather one-dimensional and stereotypical ‘pedantic mercurial stroppy French artiste’ role. Mila Kunis is also perfectly good as Lily, the mysterious, possibly bisexual, possibly imaginary rival to Portman’s Nina. But precisely because so much of her persona is apparently in Nina’s imagination, the part is fuzzy and amorphous. Kunis achieves this well but it doesn’t allow her to develop the character.

Hershey, though, is quite terrifying in a tremendously dark role as Nina’s mother. A ballerina who either failed or was cursed by becoming pregnant, depending on whose interpretation you prefer, she is bitter, pushy, psychotic, overprotective and abusive. Many of the most memorable non-dance scenes feature her as foil for her daughter’s hallucinations or oppressive experiences, again depending on interpretation.

Lost among the reviewers’ plaudits, the soundtrack was a supplementary star of the film. Not only Tchaikovsky’s exquisite ballet themes, but their reworking and weaving into a wider score by Clint Mansell – yes, that Clint Mansell – alongside the club scene tracks by the Chemical Brothers. The moderato Swan Theme (1m 16s for the tears) is now firmly linked in my mind with the ‘last supper’ scene from Of Gods and Men (a tremendous, heartbreaking film) since seeing that before Christmas, which lent it even greater terrors and poignancy.

A great film, all told, and should deliver an Oscar for Portman at least, and perhaps for Aronofsky too – his resumé is just incredible at this point (though I know a lot of people didn’t like The Fountain – I thought it was fascinating, if utterly bonkers).

*I do think it’s worth noting that, in the language of Black Swan, Portman had begun to ‘let go’ with V for Vendetta and Hotel Chevalier, but the former is deeply flawed and the latter too short to extrapolate from in any meaningful sense. Closer, well, that was such a messy adaptation that it was hard to tell what was going on.

Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 10:42 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Don’t bother seeking out The Other Boleyn Girl, it’s terrible

    • Aha, I thought it might be. I had a chance to see it on TV at Christmas but I think I just watched something about old railways and ate toblerone instead…

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