Monday, 24 January 2011


Passing through the corridors today, the "What happened to my sweet girl?", "SHE'S GONE!" duets were rife. It seemed Black Swan occupied everyone's lips, and when I was approached with numerous "oh my oh my have you seen it?"s, I gave an omniscient nod of recognition. Unless you've been in a cave for the past few weeks, you'll agree that Black Swan has caused quite a stir, with Natalie Portman winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her portrayal of Swan Queen Nina Sayers, an Oscar win sure. It is the understatement of the year then to say that the film had quite a lot to live up to.

Nina Sayers is a good place to start, the character's mental deterioration the subject of Black Swan. Heavy, I know. The film consists of Nina who, encouraged (and sheltered) by her overly-pushy mother, wins the part of the much-coveted Swan Queen in a New York ballet company's production of Swan Lake. In productions of Swan Lake, the main protagonist, the White Swan, and the evil Black Swan, are traditionally played by the same person. Nina, having been sheltered and trained by her mother, wins the role of the virginal White Swan with ease, executing the choreography perfectly. However, when it comes to the Black Swan, Nina lacks the fire, charisma and, well, seductiveness, the role requires. It is this portrayal of the Black Swan, and Nina's quest for perfection, which causes her to go, for lack of a better word, insane.

Perfection is one of the key themes of the film. Nina, in everything in her life, strives for it; at the start of the film, we see Nina wake up, and then soon after begin to stretch and warm up. She has the body of an 8 year-old boy, and is in optimum physical condition. She is unbelievably focused, choosing not to mix with the other ballerinas (who consequently see her as uptight), and not really having a social life at all. Theoretically, Nina should be perfect. But the role of the Black Swan demands much more than perfection on paper. The role demands attitude, ferocity, volatility, all of which Nina doesn't have. In order to achieve this, coach Tom (Vincent Cassel) tells Nina to let go. It is when she does this, when she immerses herself in the role, she really begins to lose her mind. Nina is her own worst enemy - Nina has the talent to be one of the greats, but in order to do that she has to "delve into her inner self", the only obstacle in her way being herself. Mirrors are a noticeable motif in the film. There is one particular scene where Nina stays behind to put in some extra practice (exemplifying her dedication), and she sees her reflection turning around and smiling. In the film, Nina is forced to address issues which have had a huge impact on her life; her pushy mother, who is living her failed ballet career through her daughter, sheltering her and taking away her liberty in the process. The film is largely a reaction to Nina's imprisonment, this reaction stimulated by the introduction of Lily (Mila Kunis).

Lily is everything Nina isn't. Sexually charged. Charismatic. A smoker, a drug taker, the Black Swan to Nina's White. Lily (played excellently by Mila Kunis) befriends Nina, and exposes her to a scene of which Nina is totally naive. Not even a scene, merely a way of life. Lily, like Nina, is extremely talented, but we get the impression that she doesn't take things as seriously. She is late for the audition of the Swan Queen. As I said, she smokes. And even the little things; when Nina is in the bathroom, and opens the door to a "bursting" Lily, Lily casually takes off her tights and asks Nina to stay, a concept which makes Nina extremely uncomfortable and awkward. With Lily's introduction comes another theme of the film, jealousy. Throughout the film, Nina is ridden with paranoia, convinced that Lily is after her role. Nina feels threatened by Lily, for said reasons. However, Lily is a character who in the audiences eyes is utterly sweet, and genuinely kind and pleasant. Lily's friendly gestures are interpreted by Nina as calculated attacks. Jealousy is also seen in Nina's mother. Nina's mother seemingly has Nina's best interests at heart, but especially towards the end we get the impression that her mother is sick with jealousy, her manipulation of Nina retribution for her own failures. The theme is epitomised with Winona Ryder's character of Beth, the older ballerina who Nina replaces, Aronofsky clearly more than influenced by the renowned All About Eve. A ballerina's career is over at 25; it is simply the nature of the extremely fickle business. One scene shows the ballerinas in the dressing room talking of Beth as if she is old and withered. Whilst waiting for her audition, Nina sees Beth enraged, trashing her dressing room and screaming obscenities. Beth later corners Nina, asking her what she did to get the role. Nina is extremely apologetic, and acts innocent to her accusations. But when Nina is faced with the same situation with Lily, Nina, like Beth, quickly becomes obsessed with clinging onto the role.

Natalie Portman is outstanding. There aren't enough superlatives. I was speaking to a friend today who has done ballet for years, who claimed Portman was a terrible dancer. But for a lowly philistine like me, Portman gives a fantastic performance, the final scene showing the first night of the production one of the best scene's in recent years, Portman, red eyes and and all, crazed and utterly mind-blowing as the Black Swan. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen even if there was free popcorn. If she doesn't get the Oscar, I - there's no point in complaining, she will. Mila Kunis is also outstanding, thoroughly deserving a nomination if not a win for her portrayal. Unfortunately, I felt Cassel's character didn't really work. His lines highlighted flaws in the script, and for me the character just wasn't a strong one at all. But I'll forget about that.

Director Darren Aronofsky said that the film should be seen in conjunction with it's predecessor The Wrestler, and you can definitely see why. The film is shot in very much the same way, Aronofsky opting for a handheld camera, causing claustrophobic and intimate viewing, the high and low art forms being depicted with the same grit and dirt. One can see Portman's porcelain skin whilst also seeing Rourke's cuts and scrapes. The grungy concrete dressing room is reminiscent of the Wrestler's backstage gymnasium, as well as both films featuring moments of wince-worthy gore. Black Swan also takes to following Portman from behind, again causing claustrophobia and tension much in the way it did in The Wrestler. My favourite scene may be the club scene, in which Lily and Nina are seen dancing in red and black strobe lighting. It is mesmerising, the audience only catching staggered intervals of the dancing, ecstasy-ridden silhouettes. Aronofsky has done a fantastic job, and without this personal, up-close approach the film wouldn't be half of what it is.

I was torn between whether to give this film four stars or five. But what tipped me over the edge was the questioning and discussion the film provokes. The film is an experience - it is harrowing, and lingers long after the first watch. Immediately, me and my friends were nattering away, giving our interpretations and discussing the characters. The film is disturbing and provocative, and as much of a mind-boggler as Inception. I implore each and every one of you to see this film.

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