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Review: Ballet is far from boring in the psychological thriller “Black Swan”

After attending a screening of BLACK SWAN at the London Film Festival this week, I stepped out of the auditorium and looked down at my hands. My palms were sweating. Not because I’d kept my coat on in the cinema and I was feeling a bit warm, but because of the heart-felt ferocity of the film’s conclusion.

It was an experience similar to that I got watching another of Darren Aronofsky’s movies, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, one of the most emotionally intense movies I’ve ever seen. This wasn’t quite as bad, but still, sweaty palms were bountiful. It wasn’t just me who had a physical reaction. During the viewing, the man to the right of me couldn’t stop jumping, mumbling profanities, and covering his mouth in shock. The guy on the other side had his head clamped tightly in his hands through the most torturous parts. But regardless of these acute responses, both were clapping in unison by the end, as was I.

BLACK SWAN stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a girl who’s spent her life dreaming of being a prima ballerina, and has got the creepy musical jewellery box complete with a forever twirling dancer to prove it. Her overbearing and mentally unstable mother (played by Barbara Hershey) shares her dream (after giving up her career for her daughter – cue jealous angst) and lives through her child. With a frantic determination that is unsettling even in the beginning, Nina is desperate to get the lead role of her New York ballet company’s next production, Swan Lake. When it comes out that the company’s aging star, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), is being forced into retirement, she is quickly chosen as her replacement. What’s obvious from the very start is that this girl’s got enough issues to scare off a hardened psychotherapist, so we quickly see that things are going to spiral out of control.

The company director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is insistent in wanting to strip down the production and make it real. He sees Nina as the perfect fit for his White Swan, but not her evil and lustful counterpart the Black Swan. For the production to work, he pressures her to let herself lose control, and with the help of adversary, Lily (Mila Kunis), who lives and breathes Black Swan characteristics, the innocent and sweet exterior Nina exudes begins to unravel. As she delves deeper into her psychosis, paranoid delusions and neurosis get the better of her, with terrifying results. The movie certainly doesn’t shy away from exposing her psychological descent into madness either. Aronofsky makes it as enticingly visceral as the production of Swan Lake that the character Leroy is so adamant about creating.

The whole film is coated with a thick gloss of beauty and perfection. The grainy camera style (used so well in THE WRESTLER) helps to bring the terror of what we are watching to life. There is a crippling sense of ambiguity that comes from Aronofsky’s contrasting of black and white and an astute use of reflections, in both mirrors and other people, which leads the audience to wonder what is real and what isn’t. All this, plus the wince-inducing scenes of self-harm and mutilation, produces an overwhelming intensity that lasts throughout most of the film. As a way of explaining the feeling you get from watching this, imagine you are scared of balloons (unless you actually are scared of balloons, in which case you get what I’m talking about). Now visualise someone throwing sharp darts at an overblown balloon and just waiting for it to burst. Yes, that’s the feeling.

The harrowing intensity is added to even further by the sound editing. The exaggeration of Portman’s raspy breathing, the cracking of bones, or just the noise of nails being clipped, is enough to put you on the edge of your cinema seat. But what really made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck was the incredible soundtrack. Of course, a lot of the praise for that goes to the genius of Tchaikovsky; however Clint Mansell managed to stitch each note into the movie seamlessly. As a result, BLACK SWAN swells (pitch perfectly) along with the score; the compositions ebb and flow along with the themes of the story.

As for the acting, I’ll admit, I wasn’t a huge Natalie Portman fan before this movie (although I can begrudgingly agree she held her own in CLOSER, I’m not sure I can forgive her stony performance as Queen Amidala in STAR WARS). Yet I was surprised and awed by her courageous performance here. By the end of the movie, my jaw had dropped at her incredibly powerful portrayal of the dark counterpart. The switch between the two characters couldn’t have been more blatant, but that isn’t to say it wasn’t helped along by some out-of-nowhere CGI. Mila Kunis was well cast as the girl with the bad side, and Vincent Cassel was fantastic as the lechy director with a taste for young ballerinas. Special mention has to go to Barbara Hershey for a standout performance as Nina’s mother, Erica. The claustrophobic hold she had over her daughter was palpable even when she wasn’t in the scene, and whilst we never get to delve into her character’s actions or reasoning, she maintains an overwhelming presence throughout the film.

It’s hard to find flaws in such an outstanding film. If I was pressed, I would say that the scene of the much-hyped homo-eroticism seemed less stylised than others, and a little overwrought to the point of excessiveness. But maybe that’s just my pedantic, conservative side rearing its ugly head. When all is said and done, this minor imperfection is of little consequence in a movie that provides such an exhilarating, but emotionally draining, ride for its viewer.

Whilst it could be argued that the ending of BLACK SWAN bears many cinematographic similarities to that of another Aronofsky film (I won’t say which just in case you want the finale to remain a complete mystery), it stands to reason that it really wouldn’t have worked any other way. It was the logical conclusion.

Just as the logical conclusion of watching it in a dark cinema is going to be sweaty palms, and lots of them.

A –



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