This weekend sees the first major awards ceremony take place in the form of the Golden Globes (which I shall be reporting on as it happens). In the running for the prestigious Best Picture award we have The King’s Speech, Inception, The Social Network, The Fighter and this, Black Swan. What we have here is a highly competitive year, as all the films (bar The Fighter, as I am yet to see it) are pretty excellent. Black Swan, I believe, is very much the dark horse in the competition. It’s the most unconventional movie out of the lot, as it is a psychological thriller which the award boards never seem to take that kindly to. It is also directed by Darren Aronofsky, who along with fellow nominee’s Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, have gone over looked by awards in the past, despite delivering exceptional films. Black Swan though offers the opportunity for Award boards to be a bit different, as it certainly is a movie that plays on your expectations and messes with your head, more so than Inception did in a way. You can never guess what’s going to happen next, and even after it’s happened you can’t quite get your head round it. Which makes this excellent cinema.
Natalie Portman stars as upcoming Ballet star Nina Sayers, who lives a sad and closed off life which revolves entirely around her art of ballet. Nina’s commitment is set to be paid off as she lands the lead role of the Swan Queen in her company’s production of Swan Lake. The role requires the dancer to inhabit both the role of the delicate, virginal White Swan and the dangerous and seductive Black Swan. Nina fits the role of the White Swan perfectly, but its the role of the Black Swan she can’t seem to figure out. The pressure from her director Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and competition from fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) who fits the Black Swan role perfectly, forces Nina to get in touch with her darker side. A move which threatens to destroy her. The whole movie is essentially about the deterioration of Nina’s mind. She’s a pretty weird character to begin with as she is a closed off girl in her twenties who still lives with her mother and is more than likely still a virgin. Her life is completely occupied by dance, and it’s this commitment which threatens to destroy the very fabric of what she perceives to be reality, transforming her personality and appearance (at one point quite literally).
The film rides on the performance of Natalie Portman. It starts as a very reserved performance, injecting Nina with a soft-spoken innocence and naivety that makes her easily sympathetic. It’s no easy role, as it requires such a transformation, Portman having to move from the innocent Nina to the dark and tormented Nina that begins to develop as a result of the pressures of her life. She convinces on both sides of the role and also in the physically demanding dance sequences. It is definitely an awards worthy performance that deserves all the buzz it is receiving. Mila Kunis (who’s the voice of Meg in Family Guy) has an easier role but is excellent support for Portman to play off, as they really are complete opposites. The two characters have a peculiar chemistry which develops into a very twisted and intimate relationship (or perhaps fantasy). Vincent Cassel (La Haine) is ever dependable, creating a character that you can never quite put your finger on, can Nina trust him? What are his intentions with her? Winona Ryder isn’t given a great deal to do apart from look scary as fallen star dancer Beth, but along with Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother it is a very pivotal role in the overall proceedings.
Aronofsky is starting to develop an almost documentary like style, as he follows the single hand held camera style he set down with The Wrestler. Black Swan almost seems to be a mix of what has worked best for Aronofsky in his career so far, taking the surreal and disturbing aspects that made Requiem For A Dream such an unforgettable experience, and mixing it with the up-close and personal look at a sport which requires incredible commitment, as he did with The Wrestler. At times, this movie gets a bit too surreal for its own good, as some people may find the very abstract and bizarre workings of Nina’s mind a bit too much to take in, as at one particular point it really does go full-out. But it is certainly unsettling, which of course is the intended emotional reaction that Aronofsky is trying to achieve, and acheive he does. The editing is so disorienting at times that you almost have to double take and make sure you’re not losing your mind along with Nina.
Aronofsky has made his most sophisticated movie with Black Swan, helped to great effect by the very artistic cinematography of Matthew Libatique (working with Aronofsky for the first time since The Fountain) which represents the light and dark sides of the Swan Queen character. Aronofsky’s regular composer Clint Mansell has also produced some of his best work here, creating a tragically beautiful score which wonderfully incorporates themes from Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake ballet. It all accumulates into an atmospheric movie, that has an ominous sense of unease right from the start. It also works as a powerful companion piece to The Wrestler, taking a closer look at the nuts and bolts of their respective skills, showing an unflinching and painful side to commitment. The ending as well evokes a very similar response to what you may have had watching The Wrestler (if you haven’t seen it, then why the hell not!?), both of which actually have a rather negative response to being committed to your chosen skill. Although these are extreme cases of commitment. Aronofsky has made a film which has made the award voters sit up enough to gain nominations and great buzz that may see it win big this weekend and in the following months. It certainly has the potential, I guess only time shall tell.