Saturday, February 5, 2011

Film Review - Black Swan

Hey all!

So I bet your all really excited about Darren Aronofsky's latest directorial work Black Swan, arn't you? The tale of a ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), obsessed with perfection and ultimately devoured by her desire to be the best, the film cleverly parallels the ballet Swan Lake itself. Critics have been raving about this one for quite some time. 

Apparently this film contains Natalie Portman's greatest performance to date (Even better then her performance in Star Wars : Attack Of The Clones? No way!), a dark, foreboding tone and amazing camera work by the always visually-impressive Aronofsky.

Oh yes, you may also have heard of this.

My God, Her Bracelet Is Amazing!

Interesting how a film that wants to be a clever art-house piece would scream so much about one small same-sex oral sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. While I get that this is an attractive proposal for any red-blooded male/female/inanimate household object (I mean DAMN!), this scene still got more press time then the fact Portman practiced for this film's ballet scenes for a full year. This sex scene was mentioned in interviews, in previews, in official press updates, hell it even appears for a few seconds in the trailer! What kind of art-house film promotes itself so strongly on a sex scene that barely lasts one minute and is not really all that sexy? Hmm...

But to be fair, all the other speculation you have heard is true. The entire cast act their little cotton socks off and the camera work is without fault. Black Swan takes you into the dancing along with the performers, allowing you to glide, float, trip, crash and burn along with them. It is an incredibly showcase for how beautiful and moving ballet can be, with the camera itself a dancer amongst the cast. The oppressive New York background highlights how scared Nina is of the world around her and the constant use of extreme close-up's reminds us that this is the world as seen by her.

Darran Aronofsky has made no secret of the fact that Black Swan is a companion piece to his 2008 masterpiece The Wrestler. Both are tales of individuals in love with their chosen career, which is also killing them, be it socially, mentally or physically. Both films open with a brief showcase of their respective professions and both films end with a very similar shot of grand ambiguity. Sadly Aronofsky forgot one vital thing. The Wrestler seemed to know what the fuck it was doing.

Black Swan does not.

"How Could Sinister Be So Mean!?"

The biggest issue with Black Swan is strangely enough the character of Nina, even though Portman rightly deserves the oscar buzz for her acting here (although Vincent Cassell and Barbara Hershey repeatedly steal scenes from under her). A 26 year old who is trapped in a Carrie-esque relationship with her domineering tyrant mother, Nina is the sort of character that should be easy to find sympathy for. Sadly, the film never really tries to flesh out Nina beyond what is strictly needed for the story. It's not her fault she's a whiny, neurotic and horribly boring character, its her wicked Mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Seriously, one of the central pillars of this bold, exciting, fresh art-house horror-thriller is the tired cliché of a mean Mommy being the root of a characters personal problems? Since Nina is never portrayed as being flawed (beyond being "too perfect") there is no chance for her to learn from her mistakes or improve. At the same time, Nina is never shown as being directly to blame for her actions either, it all being the fault of her delusions and other characters pushing her too hard.

Nina lives a joyless, robotic life of endless ballet practice and non-stop worry. She is never shown to enjoy ballet (or indeed enjoy much of anything) and when reality starts to break down for her the audience is still given no reason to care. She is unbearably uninteresting and since the entire film is shown through her eyes the tedium of her life quickly becomes a chore for the audience to endure. Portman clearly does her absolute best with the material given (which mostly seems to be crying, whining and discovering puberty). I can't fault Portman in the slightest and I must stress how amazing her performance is in-spite of what she is given to work with. Since Nina is given sod-all to do as a character, this leaves the concept of personal transformation somewhat hollow. She is given a character who starts the film crazy and ends the film crazier, with the transformation seeming to be less within her character and more in that she now smiles a little. Powerful stuff indeed.

I mentioned the mean Mommy cliché already but that's far from the only one. Need an artistically driven, quasi-rapist dance instructor? Thank you Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) for setting the French people back to the Looney Toons era of race presentation. How about making Ballet more competitive then Rollerball or Deathrace? Women here will do anything to get ahead, including whoring themselves out to any men in reach. As we all know, wanton sex and hardcore drug use are the only ways to truly liberate oneself. Give in to the dark-side Nina, go clubbing!

The Farce Is Strong With This One

For an art-house horror-thriller, the horror elements are handled with more camp then a dozen bat-bombs could destroy. Mental deterioration seems to function by digitally-swapping Nina's face onto other people (not scary), making reflections act strangely (not scary) and forcing Winona Ryder to over-act (very funny). A scene in which Winona Ryder's retired dancer Beth repeatedly self-mutilates herself is more forced then most child-births. Nina seems to see nothing wrong with taking mind-altering drugs while her reality is falling apart and then seems genuinely confused that this ends poorly. Male ballerina's smirk as they leave a dance studio, knowing that Thomas is probably going to force himself on Nina. And that's funny apparently...?

Would no one think to ring the Police on this well-known forceful sex-offender? Why doesn't Nina leave her controlling mother (who she seems well able to resist when pushed)? Why is Lily (Mila Kunis) so obsessed with getting Nina's role yet so unconcerned about dancing or dieting correctly? Nina orgasms after a 20 second oral sex moment, is that normal? Have I been doing it wrong all this time? Characters do not act like this in real life! Everyone and ever scenario in this film is the laziest kind of cypher, existing only so far as the plot demands without ever trying to make any real sense.

Already I can hear some of you complaining that since the film is shot exclusively from Nina's perspective some scenes can be allowed to not make sense. Fair point, but that still doesn't make it any more interesting, rather instead suggesting that even when suffering serious mental break-down Nina is still duller then an Irish Summer. I can live with an unpleasant film if it has a point to make, like Irreversible (rape is bad) or The Human Centipede (poo is unpleasant as a food group). Black Swan gives us nothing to even walk away with. 

After making declining mental well-being out to be goofy and kitsch, after making professional dancers out to be back-stabbing bitches, after boring us and expecting us to be grateful for it, the film ends on a semi-triumphant note?! Its ok to lose your mind utterly so long as your number one? While the ending does carry the same ambiguous tone as The Wrestler at least there we understood why Randy would choose to potentially die in the ring. Its perfectly fitting and a glorious way for the film to end, regardless of it you agreed with his decision or not. In Black Swan, it can only be described as a mercy in that now the audience can leave. Nina lives and dies a sick, lonely, friendless woman and yet it is implied (very heavily by the score, lighting and tone of the ending) that this can be seen as uplifting. How is this scene or indeed this film in any way uplifting? Does this film have anything to say at all beyond madness being unpleasant? Whats the point!?

That Doesn't Count!

If you want a film about mental breakdown and horror then go see Roman Polanski's Repulsion, which Black Swan so desperately wants to be best friends with. If you want to see mental breakdown with a sympathetic and even darkly funny twist then go see Falling Down. If you like to see soft-corn girl on girl action and silly scene-set ups then go look at porn on late night television. If you want to see a film that can genuinely call itself one of the best of 2011 so far, go see 127 Hours. I can't recommend Black Swan, not even to ballet enthusiasts as Portman seems to have offended them as well

The sad thing is the germ of a great film is here. In particular, the relationship with Nina's Mother could have been explored in far more depth. Was Erica evil or was a lot of their relationship inside Nina's head? We see Erica being very kind to Nina as well as cruel, even trying to stop Nina performing when it appears she is losing her grip on reality. But like everything else in the film, this idea is scraped in favour of a big dark void of nothing. All the positives only seem to make the over-bearing weight of the film heavier, leaving Black Swan a joyless, beautiful mess, much like Nina herself.

Til next time!

Rating : 1.5 out of 5 - For At Least Being Very Well-Shot.

See If You Like : Natalie Portman In Revealing Clothes.