Wednesday, 6 April 2011
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey
By Alan Bacchus
The success of this film is kind of astounding; $100 million + box office take from a meagre $15 million budget, but which looks invisible to any production limitations. Its Oscar nominations are perhaps the most surprising. Whether you think movie awards are popularity contests, superfluous self-stroking or dependent on shameless campaigning, the validation of Darren Aronofsky in the company of the superlative list of nominees has immense value. Well, he should have gotten a nomination for The Wrestler, but no need for sour grapes anymore.
Unlike the films of the other nominees for Best Director (Fincher, Hooper, the Coens, Russell), Black Swan exists solely to titillate our nerves, creep us out and scare us to bits. The fact is, there isn’t too far to go before hitting the bottom of these characters, particularly Natalie Portman, who plays Nina Sayers, an ambitious dancer who essentially sells her soul in order to become the best dancer she can be. Sure, in the extreme, the film comments on the psychology of artists and the inner madman/psychopath that often plagues great artists, but that’s about the extent of what we can read into this film.
Unlike The King’s Speech, The Social Network, et al, Black Swan is devoid of historical perspective, cultural significance or any romanticism of any kind. It’s Aronofsky exercising his muscles in cinematic manipulation. The joy of Black Swan is its technical purity, the type of cinema Hitchcock or Polanski used to make, largely emotionally vacant exercises in scare tactics. Despite the dark material, Black Swan is a fun movie. Fun? Really? Yes, this picture is meant to be fun. Take the fetish-like close-ups of Nina's fingernails deteriorating. Aronofsky must have known most of his audience would turn away long before we see the gory hangnail rip off half her finger. The doppelganger teasing, lesbian sex, masturbation – this is the stuff Polanski tempted us with in Repulsion and what Brian De Palma or David Lynch would do.
Like these masters, Aronofsky uses the tools of cinema – the visual and the aural – to move us to darker places and stimulate our senses.
Aronofsky’s command of his instruments is inspiring. His edgy camera work is jarring from the outset. His handheld camera, which captures the beautiful and elegant ballet dance routines, is rigorous and immediately puts us into the point of view of his troubled dancer. His control of the colour palette is just as sharp and controlled. Key designers Matthew Libatique, Thérèse DePrez and David Stein fill this world with shades of grey, black and white, complementing the black swan/white swan dualities. Sure, it’s not a subtle metaphor, but it results in a distinct, consistent look, which aids in Aronofsky’s scare tactics. And then there’s the use of mirrors, which might seem like a hackneyed horror film trick, but proves to be a venerable, reliable old device.
Though I haven’t read the script on its own, it would appear to serve the sensibilities of a director like Darren Aronofsky; a well structured, air-tight 100 pages or so, but light enough to be blown up with a robust cinematic style. And the marriage of these technical tools with equally adroit performances hits the high mark of what Hitchcock and Polanski achieved in their heydays.
Black Swan is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. It's a fabulous disc featuring a well-produced and informative making of documentary. No EPK bullshit.