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Black Swan
Culture

Film Review : Black Swan

By Matthieu Boisseau
14/01/2011

One of the main cinematographic events of the new year is the release of Darren Aronofsky's latest film Black Swan. A tremendous cast (Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis), an exciting plot, and a fantastic director: pundits are already taking bets as to how many Oscars the film will be taking home. But is it worth all the hype?
 

Plot :

Nina (Natalie Portman), who has toiled for years within a New York ballet company, dreams of playing the lead in the classic ballet Swan Lake. And when the company decides to stage a new version of Swan Lake, the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) selects Nina to replace the prima ballerina. But this would-be road to glory soon takes a nightmarish turn as Nina, who has to shed her inhibitions as well as reveal her darker side, must compete with the wildly sensual Lily (Mila Kunis). And the complexity of the role Nina is supposed to play - combining the candidness of the angelic White Swan with the eroticism of the evil Black Swan – becomes increasingly too tortuous, stressful, and psychologically gruelling for her to bare.

 

Holding ones breath for 108 min

The truth is that Black Swan is just as beautiful as it is traumatizing, because it is a cinematographic tour de force, an aesthetically breathtaking thriller as schizophrenic as its main character Nina's personality. While the protagonist plays the White Swan, the film is melodious, with its soundtrack (Tchaikovsky's Swan of Lake), and as spellbinding as a perfectly synchronised ballet. Playing the virtuous white swan is the easy bit for Nina, an innocent, sexually repressed little girl, who fits seamlessly into the role. We see her always pushing herself to please her overbearing and jealous mother by getting 'the career [her mother] gave up to have [her]'.

But  this film is not about gentleness and purity- the White Swan takes a back seat to  the Black one in the decidedly dark story. Nina, like a fallen angel, discovers sexuality while she is manipulated by her artistic director (Vincent Cassel) who tries to get the best from her by revealing her dark side.


 

Vincent Cassel has a key role in the film, as he gives it all its sexual power. And his performance, as the male artistic director who uses sexuality to manipulate his dancers is quite impressive. He draws his inspiration from the American choreographer Michael Benett- a great example within the ballet world. This is why the film swings alternately from erotic (the 'cunnilingus' scene between Nina and Lily has stirred up huge controversy amongst columnists and bloggers) and psychologically violent. But the polemical content is also what gives the film its singularity. By contrasting black and white, good and evil, innocence and darkness throughout the film, Darren Aronofsky creates a film which brings to mind Maupassant's craziness in his fascinating novel 'le Horla'. And as its glorious precursor, Black Swan is truly an enthralling and poignant experience from beginning to end.


 

 

Cassel charming Portman to get the best from her
Cassel charming Portman to get the best from her

 

 Black Swan : another example of Aronofsky's genius


 

It would be quite simplistic to summarize Darren Aronofsky's body of work like this, but Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler are definitely his most accomplished films. And fortunately for us the director went for a subtle combination of the best of his two masterpieces in Black Swan. All Aronofsky fans will notice the accurate depiction of Natalie Portman's wounded body, as was the case with Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler. Indeed, both characters are performers who use their bodies in extremely physical ways. They surpass themselves for their art, making their bodies suffer to achieve ther goals. This is why the bloody feet of Natalie Portman echo Mickey Rourke cuts caused by staples. Two physiques, two wounds : but one passion. One could say that Portman's performance is a déjà-vu, but it is definitely not. She transcends her character with grace, mystery and fragility, and gives the film a permanent sexual tension, far from the rough, rude, and sometimes insipid Mickey Rourke's The Ram.

Their is also something heroically tragic in the way Nina consumes herself to achieve her goal. Her boundless ambition leads to her tragic fate, and, like Ellen Burstyn in the cult Requiem for a Dream, she is a martyr who dies for her faith. Ellen Burstyn was nominated by the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actress in 2000...will Natalie Portman go further by winning it ? Her performance is truly impressive. She endured  six months of daily exercise and gruelling ballet training to be able to play Nina. And even if she has a dance double for certain shots, she is definitely credible in the role, thanks to her  tiny arched body as well as her steps as a member of the ballet.


 

Of course there is no masterpiece without a great cast. That may sound like a trivial observation, but the way the main trio - tormented Portman, tigress Kunis, and sexual icon Cassel lights up the film is amazing. Admittedly, one could say that the characters' lack subtlety, indeed a few critics have commented on the charicatural representation of the "evil director", the "OCD bulimic principle dancer" and her vicious and fearless opponent.  I partly agree with this. But I would also say that it is the distinctiveness of their characters that keeps the momentum going throughout the film. Torn between Cassel's male attraction and Kunis' female destructive attraction, the shift from Nina being innocent to crazy gives the film a tone of adrenaline. And as she is draws closer to the edge of the abyss, we cannot resist diving with her into this tormented realm of passion, madness, and beauty. I believe I even left a bit of myself there. A true masterpiece, then.

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