Alright, m’duck?

Well, finally saw the film they’re all talking about, and now I’ll be talking about it too. Black Swan is the reason I was asked, on the day before New Year’s Eve, to write that ill-fated profile of Natalie Portman for the Observer, which pretty much got me branded a Zionist by a single-issue nutter in the comments section. Phew. Glad that’s all over. And so to the film that has already bagged Portman a best actress Golden Globe, and looks all set to bag her a Bafta and an Oscar (although Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky will be wary of calling it a sure thing after Mickey Rourke failed to complete the hat trick for The Wrestler two years ago).

In brief: Black Swan is nuts. Certainly it’s a “ballet film” and a “psychological thriller”, by twin definition, but neither really does it justice. To my mind, Aronofsky has made his Rosemary’s Baby. This is high praise, although it comes at a price. I can’t think of a film it reminds me of more; not The Red Shoes – although there is plenty of that theatricality in there, albeit muted (ha ha, swan joke) – or Fight Club – although, again, the split personality is key. It’s grainy enough to look like a film made in the late 60s or early 70s, and that’s to its credit; although the New York it depicts is as glassy and sleek as the architecture around the Lincoln Centre, where classical meets modern, and as throbbing and drug-pumped as the dance music played in the clubs –  the tenements, brownstones, walkways, yellow cabs and subway cars could easily be taken from Death Wish or Taxi Driver or indeed, Polanski’s first American-set film (Aronofsky apparently loves The Tenant, set in Paris – as do I – although I wasn’t aware of this explicit connection when I formed my own with Rosemary’s Baby).

I saw Black Swan with a theatre-full of Radio Times media buyers and clients at a special screening last night (I was required to provide an introduction): mostly young, not necessarily cineastes, who’d been getting into the spirit of ballet by doing some warm-up exercises at the bar – GEDDIT?! I got the feeling they didn’t know what to expect, which is ideal. There was certainly a lot of nervous laughter in the lighter patches, and some fantastic vocal reactions to the film’s nastier, more physical dares. It was a good environment in which to enjoy the film; it’s not as chin-stroking as you might expect. What it mostly resembles is a kind of pre-slasher 1970s horror, with lots of shocks, and corridors, and darkness, and characters turning round to come face to face with other characters, and some superbly unsettling soundtrack stings by Clint Mansell (whose score turns out to be ineligible for the Oscars because it contains so much of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – a-boo!). Aronosfky has a great time. It’s overwrought, melodramatic, gothic and at times ridiculous, but it’s a film that’s worth seeing. It’s certainly not standard Oscar fare, at least not outside of its achingly award-hungry central performance.

Portman is sinewy and bony and gaunt, and when certain corporeal fates befall her body – either real or hallucinated – you’ll believe she could snap in half. Her dancing seems utterly convincing, and that year of “pump camp” was well worth the effort. Mila Kunis, too, is damned convincing en pointe. If you follow my blog, you’ll know I have a great fondness for seeing ballet, especially live, an appreciation I have developed in my forties, to my own surprise. For this reason, I was fascinated by all the detail about preparation of footwear and toes, and the punishing nature of the choreography and training. It’s an intriguing world, where you can easily imagine a fragile young dancer slowly destroying herself, as Portman’s Nina seems always about to do, right from the start.

Fantastic, if horrifying, panto performance from Barbara Hershey, who looks like she is wearing a Barbara Hershey mask, so pulled and unreal is her actual face. Winona Ryder also terrifying as the washed up, marinated no-longer-prima ballerina. Vincent Cassel lets the cast down; although one must assume Aronofsky wanted his artistic director to be a preening, lecherous, arrogant prick, some of his lines are so over the top he veers into farce.

Hey, much of the film is farcical, but it’s driven by such a commitment to horror and psychobabble, it’s impossible not to be sucked into it. It’s not Aronofsky’s best film, and although it’s grander than The Wrestler, it’s too much like it in texture and tone, too murky to really convey the high theatre of ballet, even in the Swan Lake scenes.

I’m afraid you’re going to have to see it, though. Just be prepared to gasp and groan and bleurgh in the cinema. It’s all part of the fun.

7 thoughts on “Alright, m’duck?

  1. Good review Andrew, agree with most points except Hershey & Cassel. If anything I felt it was her performance that was OTT while he managed to potray the prickishness and over-confidence perfectly.

  2. I saw Black Swan about a month ago, courtesy of an Oscar screener DVD that surfaced online, but I fully intend on seeing it at the cinema too once it’s released here as I really enjoyed it. When describing it to a couple of friends I used Polanski’s The Tenant too, as well as the earlier Repulsion, as examples (for a thematic, if not content, comparison), though it didn’t really help as they had seen neither. I am trying to educate them though!

    Fantastic performances from all the leads in Black Swan, and yes, I imagine Cassel was told to be as prickish as possible by Aronofsky, as that was exactly how his character would be. His position essentially made him God to the dancers – how they viewed him was evident from his first on-screen appearance, as he walked around the studio tapping shoulders while they all but whined – and you know what they say about absolute power. He acted that way because he could. I’ve been a big fan of Cassel since seeing La Haine though, and if you have the chance, and haven’t already, you should definitely check out the two (French gangster) Jacques Mesrine biopics, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number 1, which are an absolute tour de force of acting from him. I’d recommend that they be watched together though, as one single 4 hour piece, as I’m sure that’s how they were intended to be seen.

    I’ve never watched an entire ballet performance, but after watching Black Swan it’s actually made me want to, though probably only if it were a similarly avant-garde adaptation. I’ve read a lot of comments criticising both female leads’ ballet skills, but to my eye, untrained as it is, they looked very convincing,

    Kudos for not mentioning THAT scene between Portman and Kunis in your post too. You’d be amazed at how many focus on this, and at how many comments I’ve read on sites such as the IMDb forums saying that the only reason they’re to going to see the film is because they’ve heard about it. While a lesbian scene between Portman and Kunis would probably have made even Transformers 2 marginally more tolerable (from soul-crushingly bad to still soul-crushingly bad, but with one slightly erotic scene), if that’s the only reason you’re going to see the film, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. This is where I could mention that there is actually a ballet move called a fish dive. Luckily I’m not that crude.

    Anyway… I was glad to see Portman win the Golden Globe for her performance in the film. Fingers crossed it’ll carry over into an Oscar win too as this was the best performance of her career by far. I do like her, but honestly, the only other time she’s been remotely as good was in her movie debut, Leon, 16 years ago, so hopefully this will mark a turning point for her.

  3. Clint Mansell scores of Aranofsky’s film and has made quite a name for himself in the cinematic world.

    What a long way he has come from PWEI.

    Black Swan sounds fascinating.

  4. Andrew, I think the films Black Swan shares a dizzying mood and tone with are Jacob’s Ladder and The Machinist… all three are essentially from the demented protagonist’s POV, so you never know what’s real and what’s imagined. I love it when films achieve that off-kilter mood effectively.

    By the way, RE your Guardian comment section attack: All the principle cast are Jews (or Jewesses), including the director. Lucky you didn’t point that out in your mild Portman piece, you anti-semite Zionist vegetarian!

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