And so the Oscars race has officially started. Nominations for both the BAFTAs and the Oscars are now out, and if one were to judge from the Golden Globes, The Social Network is this year's frontrunner. With the ten best picture Oscar nominations and there being a genuinely wide variety of films, it still seems to be anyone's ball game. Furthermore, these films seem to be avoiding the usual 'Oscar film' kind of label, able to stand up on their own two feet. It is fantastic to see films like Inception and Toy Story 3 get the recognition that they deserve, but also films like 127 Hours, a very unconventional film, and the film that is the subject of this review, Black Swan.
Anyone who has regularly followed this blog for the past few years knows that I raved heavily about Darren Aronofsky's previous film The Wrestler. In fact, it was my best film of 2008, and I consider it now one of my favourite films. Mickey Rourke gives a once in a lifetime performance as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, and I would seriously urge everyone to go out and watch that film. It serves as a companion piece to this film. Black Swan has got a lot of critical attention, particularly for the lead performance by Natalie Portman. Also, along with the Best Actress nom for Portman, it has also got a Best Picture nom and Aronofsky's first (but almost certainly not his last) Best Director nom.
In Black Swan, a New York ballet company prepares for the production of a new version of Swan Lake, a new lead being cast in place of Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) as the Swan Queen. As is the tradition of Swan Lake, the dancer cast in the part must alternate between the White Swan and the Black Swan. Among those in the running are Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunis). Although described as the perfect White Queen, director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is reluctant to cast Nina in the part. However, after she bites his lip while kissing him, surprised and aroused, Leroy casts Nina as the Swan Queen.
Those familiar with Darren Aronofsky's films will know that he always seems to be able to direct the best performances possible out of his actors. Black Swan is no exception to this unwritten rule. The lead performance by Natalie Portman as Nina does for her what Randy 'The Ram' Robinson did for Mickey Rourke (I know, one of those stupid 'quotable' phrases that critics love to use). Portman has from her first film role as Mathilda in Leon proved herself as a fine actress, so it is terrific that she has got a role like this. She does an amazing job of playing Nina is a performance that is obviously physically demanding. Losing twenty pounds and going through an intense six-month training, she looks the part. Also, Portman manages to manifest emotion through the physical performance of the character. She projects the perfectionist persona of Nina via the dancing, but also the rigid tightness of someone emotionally repressed. As such, whenever we get glimpses of the 'Black Swan' persona emerging, waiting to be born, it can be shocking. This is a performance that works well both in three-dimensional terms and also in narrative/thematic terms of two different sides of one's personality fighting over the same body. The emotional spectrum of the character bounds to all places imaginable, from the depths of depression to the peaks of triumph. As the epicentre of the film, Portman gives a stunning performance of mesmerising power that is the one of the best, not just from a film this year, but in film history.
Portman's performance as Nina is getting a lot of attention (and rightfully so), but good words must be said about the rest of the cast. Mila Kunis is really great as Lily. Granted, all of the characters are written very much symbolically around Nina, but Kunis portrays adeptly the attributes that Nina is lacking. Although less technically proficient as Nina, Kunis shows us that Lily is more of a free spirit of passion, the polar opposite of Nina's rigidity. Kunis gives Lily a real charm to her character and delivers a really fine performance. Also, although only in the film for a few scenes, Winona Ryder does a good job of playing Beth MacIntyre. She creates a fully believable character out of the symbolic representation of what the future could be for Nina. Also, Vincent Cassel, who seems to be able to make the most boring characters seem interesting, is able to ply his talents to the character of Thomas Leroy. The unconventional director is able to come across as suave, boorish, intelligent, arrogant and powerful, often at the same time due to his complete embodiment by Cassel. The man has a fantastic way of being able to shed the skin of previous roles and become enveloped in the character he is playing. Finally, Barbara Hershey is excellent as Erica, Nina's mother. She plays the loving, adoring mother with great pride, treating Nina like her little cherub. You really get the impression of a genuinely supportive mother. However, when 'things happen', the elements of her being overbearing and Nina being a projection of her unfulfilled dreams become apparent, while still being tackled by her motherly role. The clash makes her an intimidating onscreen presence.
Although these performances are fantastic, you can't help but get the impression that without the direction of Aronofsky they would not be as good as they are. Black Swan is, for a film that goes to lots of different places (figuratively speaking), rather controlled. As someone who has seen many of these films go in the wrong directions, Aronofsky admirably manages to keep things surprisingly restrained. Like the perfectionism of Nina, Aronofsky's decisions to have the whole film narratively a reflection of Nina's battling persona(e) displays intelligence and good sense. It is the best-disguised trick of the film. Filmmakers are ultimately illusionists with their magician tricks, the greatest trick of all being caught up in the trick and forgetting, consciously or unconsciously, the presence of a magician. This is a work that is reminiscent certain works of David Lynch, particularly movies like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE. I really think that Aronofsky has pulled off a great illusion in the direction of the film. Black Swan is a very powerful work that furthermore proves Aronofsky as one of the most important filmmakers working today. He just seems to keep releasing great films.
A few words must also be given to the cinematography by Matthew Libatique. Aronofsky's considers the film a companion piece to The Wrestler, and the two share similarities, the digital photography for one thing. However, unlike the cinematography in The Wrestler, where it is used to show the down-and-dirty gritty life of 'The Ram', here DV is used for its subversive qualities. Here I go again, I know, but I frequently (too frequently) mention the use of DV in action films in light of the way Paul Greengrass' Bourne films were shot. Also, I often talk about how they use it inferiorly, and how you often end up nauseated. In the case of Black Swan, Libatique used the nauseating effect of DV photography to dramatic effect, but not without the control that permeates the film. All of the moves are clearly intentional, and make you doubt what you see onscreen. Also, Libatique’s cinematography works excellently in a stylistic sense, particularly in the dance sequences, much of which shows Portman dancing, but also makes use close-ups on her facial expressions as she does so. It has an amazing effect and is very innovative.
However, as ever in the case of cinematography, it wouldn't work nearly as well without some excellent editing. If there is one word (noun) to describe the editing of Black Swan, it would be 'crank.' Andrew Weisblum displays the control that typifies the work, and does one of the best editing jobs of the year. I love how during the dance scenes, Weisblum lets the cinematography and acting take centre stage, often letting the shots go on for over a minute. It is a generous piece of editing that makes the work seem so much more whole. The editing though clearly works best when catering towards the film's subversive qualities. Weisblum displays a controlled frenzy that is highly appropriate for the work. This is the case in the last thirty/forty minutes of the film, giving the film a real hallucinatory feel, leading us to question the nature of everything we are witnessing. By this stage Weisblum has 'cranked' up the film, and the editing, frenetic but not without control, contributes hugely to the vice-grip that the film has on the audience. This is some superb work in the editorial department, and Weisblum should be very happy with what he has done.
The final outstanding aspect of the film that I would like to really praise is the overall sound of the film. Of course, being a film about the production of a version of Swan Lake, we are going to get lots of Tchaikovsky. The use of Tchaikovsky is very wise, for certain sections of Swan Lake recur throughout the film, becoming motifs. Also, different versions by The Chemical Brothers pop up, for example, in the club scenes. Clint Mansell returns once again to do work for an Aronofsky film. A previous winner of Best Soundtrack/Score from my annual Year-End awards (for The Wrestler), Mansell is a terrific composer, and once again he does some fine work for Black Swan. Saying that, the real stars of the film's overall sound would have to be the sound department. As mentioned, the film is incredibly subversive, and like many of David Lynch's films, the sound is a key component to this. The sound goes up and down, volume level being tweaked to suit its purpose in relation to the plot. Also, Foley Artist Steve Baine has done his homework and come up with some very strange sounds. The best aspect of sound in general in the film though is the sound editing. There is a fantastic organic quality to this, with seamless transitions from diagetic to non-diagetic music working very well in sucking us into the mindset of Nina. In terms immersing us in the character, all of those involved with sound are a big part in developing a profile for Nina without explicitly saying things.
Black Swan is a fantastic film is so many ways, although by no means is it flawless, and it does not pain me to write of certain problems I found with the film. As I mentioned, the film is very controlled and the narrative unfolds in this manner purposefully. However, I'd be lying if I thought that the film on the rarest of occasions the screenwriters (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin) went a bit too far with the 'controlled frenzy' I mentioned earlier. I won't mention them because it would involve spoiling the plot, but by the end they do leave you deflated. This is a fault especially considering that the ending points in more specifically in one direction, rather than keeping it open-ended. That is the most I will say, because I could elaborate and really don't want to spoil a fine film with a niggle of mine. Also, the script is pretty good as it is.
As I said, I have a problem with the film that denies it the status of a perfect film. Nevertheless, there is so much could about the film that it outweighs that problem significantly, fully deserving of being called a 'masterpiece', to use a long-worn cliche. Natalie Portman gives an extraordinary performance as Nina, and is backed up by a wonderful supporting cast. Also, Darren Aronofsky handles what could have been a messy film with suitable prowess. It is shot very well, although much of the success of Matthew Libatique's cinematography is down to the superb editing by Andrew Weisblum. Finally, it has some of the best overall sound in any film from 2010. Black Swan a wonderful film that really stands out as an important film to be seen.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.5/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Recovering (another one of those days following drink the night before)