Wolfie at the movies: Black Swan

Black Swan (15) ****

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
R.T. 108 min.

Brilliant young ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) gets a fairy tale offer to replace the prima donna in a prestigious New York Ballet production Swan Lake. She is sweetness and light whilst her rival, Lily (Mila Kunis) appears to be evil itself and the fairy tale turns to horror.

They say:

“You’ll never see Swan Lake in quite the same light again.” Daily Express

“Works best as a bit of tongue-in-cheek high camp.” Florida Times-Union

“The Red Shoes meets Repulsion, ballet goes en pointe with horror, in Darren Aronofsky’s terrific – at times terrifying – psychological thriller Black Swan.” Movie Talk

‘The film is lurid, melodramtic, over-the-top – and currently a hot awards favourite. Aronofsky must have hypnotic powers over jurors and voters.” Financial Times

Wolfie says:

Some people love everything that director Darren Aronofsky does and others are allergic to his frenzied world view. I, of course,  am much too sensible to sit in either camp but with Black Swan, I can see why he divides his audience.

Aronofsky is a real film director in the sense that he understands that the medium does things that no other performance art can.  In the hands of a master director, all our senses our controlled leaving us at his mercy, forced to look where he wants us to look and to hear what he wants us to hear. When he is on top form, as he is here, he defies our common sense, our expectations and pushes us into uncomfortable places where we would rather not go.

Every frame of this movie has been, or appears to have been planned in advance so that, as grand master Alfred Hitchcock knew, the cinema audience is kept in and out of suspense at the director’s command. If we have never been in a corps de ballet, we have been in the corps-de-workplace or the corps-de-school- playground and Aronofsky knows it. We don’t need to like or understand ballet to be drawn into this, at times, difficult to watch psychological thriller. Aronofsky holds our nervously clammy hands all the way through.

In this film, a walk to the station, a ride on the subway or just opening a door takes on an epic and latently distressing character. The human body, especially star ballerina Nina’s, makes noises, human, animal and sometimes even automaton and, whenever you are not expecting it, it bleeds or splits open. We are all told that ballet is a tough discipline but if we didn’t quite get that before, we sure do now after agonising all the way with Natalie Portman’s heroic struggle to fulfill Aronofsky’s demands on her. Perhaps most creepy of all is the softly but relentlessly weird sound of those tapping toes en pointe. Often, even when the musical soundtrack is full blast, the dominant sound is the persistent squelching, tapping or cracking sounds of the human body under pressure.

Great as she is in the part, Natalie Portman, along with all the other actors, is a puppet in the director’s hands. It is he who guides our eyes and makes us jump as he cuts his shots together in the best way possible to upset our equilibrium. For a moment or two, I wondered if even I could be the Swan Queen if Aronofsky was calling the shots – and believe me I ain’t no ballet dancer.

On the negative side, and I have to be fair here, there are some moments at the height of the drama when even I, fan though I am, thought less would have been more but then maybe I am missing out on some of those nightmares.

For all his excesses though, the film is highly controlled and takes us on a journey to Hell and then to somewhere else maybe worse because it is so much more human. I was not just on the edge of my seat, I was on my toes.

Before you all shout at me for under-praising the acting, the cast is very strong. Natalie Portman, perfectly cast doesn’t put a foot wrong, literally, and when she becomes the Black Swan, the thrill wasn’t totally thanks to Mr. Aronofsky.

Mila Kunis oozed personality, sexuality and genuine cinematic charisma as the dangerous-to-know but easy-to-love Lili and Vincent Casell strikes just the right balance between thespian crap and creative flair as Nina’s Svengali of a choreographer whose idea of black and white is virgin or whore. There are winning performances too from the two actresses playing past-their-sell-by-date ballerinas, Winona Ryder as the ageing prima ballerina who doesn’t just fall from grace but falls under a bus for good measure and Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, the ghastly failed dancer who has turned into the interfering and physically invasive stage mother from Hell. Both parts are taken with real gusto.

In the end though, the plaudits have to go to the two stars of the show. To Darren Aronofsky for all the reasons above and also for not forgetting to turn us all on to the magic of the theatre in general and the ballet in particular and, to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, credited on the end roller, whose score for Swan Lake with its passion, romance and, most of all, for its hysterical neurosis, gives Aronofsky everything a director could possibly want.

Go see it but, be warned, this is ballet as horror.

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