Tuesday 26 October 2010

Review: Black Swan

Year: 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

Synopsis is here

They are usually naive, sometimes obsessive and often talented; Darren Aronofsky's characters are self-assassinating creatures. We feel pity for them as they constantly cry out for help; be it drugs, fatherhood, or even the very source of life itself. The problem is their reclusive characters and obstructive behavior not only block us from helping them, but keeps them on the path of destruction.  Aronofsky has explored such people from low budget gritty dramas to high end sci-fi but never before in a horror film setting. Black Swan is his first and for me it may well be his opus.

Once again using the single camera, documentary style utilized before in The Wrestler, the visuals not only detail the brutal and tough preparation that goes into ballet, but the evocative close ups; constantly hint and suggest worry that we can't put our finger on. Aronofsky's lingering close ups of Nina's (Portman) exhausted and fretful face not only highlight the pressure that is placed on her, but also adds tension as Aronofsky encloses the space around Nina. We don't visit that many locations in Black Swan (Nina's strict routine regulates us mostly to her bedroom and the studio) but it's easy to forget this as the film wraps everything so tightly around Nina. Not only do we think that Nina is trapped in her own world but Aronofsky's camera makes sure that we feel the walls are craving in. Of course, these walls are metaphorical. Nina; whose bedroom's is covered in pink wallpaper and cuddly toys, shies away from sexual talk, and is acutely aware of the sexuality of others and doesn't appear to have any friends within the company. She is socially awkward and despite being in her twenties, one is not surprised at her mothers watchful eye over her at all times.

I felt with Nina throughout the entire film; experiencing very punishing routine, stretched muscle and tight joint. But it's not just the claustrophobic cinematography that keeps you close, but also Portman's mesmerizing performance. From when we first see her, it already looks she's on the verge of burnout. A little girl trapped inside the body of a woman. A compelling performance due Portman's ability to balance Nina's drive with her immaturity. Throughout Portman holds a fearful, childlike gaze to everyone she encounters. Answers back are mumbled while childish outbursts slip out by outside stimulus. This encapsulated world is clearly created by a domineering mother (a perfectly cast Barbara "The Enity" Hershey) and Nina's newly gained promotion installs a fight against her, she never felt she had. The relationship between the two; to me, feel very reminiscent of Carrie and Aronofsky's direction carefully teases the psychosexual aspects in many scenes. Portman is also spot on with the films later scenes as psychical pain breaks down into psychological. A good performance becomes a great one as the melding of sexual awaking, social isolation and grueling routine explode into a dazzling, liberating, final display as Swan Lake is preformed.

It is the films final, unbelievably tense third where everything comes together brilliantly. The sound design ramps up and the music becomes thunderous,  the visuals that only tricked you slightly in earlier sections come at you in full force to assault you. There are horror tropes that have been used throughout that would come across as cliche in lesser films, but are extraordinarily manipulated here. Arononfsky understands that the best horror comes from very simple and primal things, breaking Nina's natural order with exhaustion, further isolation and of course fear of the other. With all this said; I still haven't mentioned Mila Kunis' sultry performance as Lilly, which illustrates a fear of sex that Nina cannot understand. Nor have I spoke about the devilishly sleazy Thomas Leroy. Cassell clearly relishes a role like this and once again like so many of his displays, plays it pitch perfect. 

Stunningly shot and unbelievably tense, I was completely bowled over with Black Swan. Early reviews have mentioned it's audacity and ambition and it's those very things that make it stand out. It's not cookie cutter, it breaks the machine.