Black Swan (2010)

2017 #128
Darren Aronofsky | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Black Swan

Oscar statue2011 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress (Natalie Portman).
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.



Described by director Darren Aronofsky as “a psychological thriller horror film”, Black Swan straddles the divide between classy Cinema and genre Movies as artfully as, say, a Hitchcock thriller. It’s the story of ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to be the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s suited to the White Swan but struggles as its black counterpart, a role newly-arrived rival Lily (Mila Kunis) seems perfect for. As Nina pursues perfection with a monomaniacal focus, she’s pressured by the lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), to the point where her sanity is beginning to crack…

Shot handheld on a mix of 16mm and video-capable HD DSLRs, Black Swan has a documentary look, often emphasised by its editing — at times it could almost pass for a fly-on-the-wall look behind the scenes of a ballet company. That’s not to say the visuals lack artistry, however. In particular, the constant presence and use of mirrors is fantastic — both thematically relevant and visually rich. Nonetheless, the documentary-ish look serves to make the film’s unsettling parts all the more effective, especially as they take a while to emerge and continue to sidle up on you as the film goes on. The final act is where everything really kicks off — the point of the rest is to build up to that; to establish and put in place and explain everything we need for a shocking, thrilling, somewhat unguessable climax. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, because the movie leading up to that point certainly has worth.

Reflections

I’m not particularly familiar with Swan Lake, but it would seem Black Swan’s story echoes it — to the point, even, that all the cast are credited with both their character in the film and their equivalent in the ballet (and I don’t just mean the dancers who also play that role in the ballet-within-the-film — Hershey, for example, is billed as Erica Sayers / The Queen”). This extends outwards in other ways, like how the music of Tchaikovsky is repurposed by the film to its own magnificent effect. That’s as well as featuring a typically striking score from Clint Mansell.

Natalie Portman is brilliant as the conflicted Nina. She’s introverted and sheltered but has chosen (or been railroaded into) a career that requires she perform publicly; she’s fragile and under-confident but in a profession that invites criticism from all sides; she’s been left repressed, uptight, and virginal, which clashes with her perfectionism when trying to embody a role that is none of those things. It’s a complex role with many subtle facets that Portman negotiates skilfully. It feels like a departure from who she is — proper acting, if you like — which makes the performance all the more striking. Conversely, Mila Kunis feels more in her comfort zone as Lily, the free-spirited, lively but imperfect, almost a bit of a bitch, company dancer that Nina is inexplicably drawn to. She holds her own against Portman when required, but it’s not exactly a role of equatable complexity.

Titular terror

Depending how you want to see it, Aronofsky’s film is an arty movie about ballet and the psychological effects of perfectionism, or a slow-burn horror-thriller with almost as many jump scares as instances of introspection. Best of all, it can be both those things.

5 out of 5

Black Swan was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Darren Aronofsky’s latest dark mind-bender, mother!, is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

Noah (2014)

2016 #36
Darren Aronofsky | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The director of The Fountain tackles the Biblical tale of the flood as if it were also a science-fiction/fantasy adventure — familiarity with the story leads us to assume it’s set in the past, but watch without baggage and the setting looks like a post-apocalyptic future.

I imagine it was terribly controversial with hardened believers, but for the open-minded its rock-angels and action sequences are merely diverting asides to considerations of personal belief — both its dangers and its benefits.

By turns plodding and suitably rousing, it’s far from perfect; but as an alternative kind of blockbuster entertainment, it’s an interesting one.

4 out of 5

The Wrestler (2008)

2015 #143
Darren Aronofsky | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-robbed performance is the primary draw of this drama about a washed-up pro wrestler struggling to make ends meet. As ill health threatens his ability to continue performing on the miserable, brutal ex-pro circuit, he ties to connect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and woo a kindly stripper with personal issues of her own (Marisa Tomei, in another Oscar-worthy turn).

Unsurprisingly, the director of Requiem for a Dream doesn’t dole out easy happy endings, but does bring a note of ambiguity that is especially effective at the end of a tale which finds mundanity in a strange world and generates unexpected respect for the ‘art’ of wrestling.

5 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2014 #136
Darren Aronofsky | 97 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / NC-17*

Requiem for a DreamOn Coney Island, the faded and decrepit one-time pleasure place of New York City, four people — Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his mother Sara (Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn) — find themselves accidentally drawn into a whirlwind of drug addiction. Not to put too fine a point on it.

A lot of people say that Requiem for a Dream is the bleakest or most depressing movie ever made, and you kind of think, “yeah well, we’ll see — how bad can it be?” For most of the film, that notion is indeed misleading. Not that it’s a happy-clappy affair, but it’s a very watchable drama, not a gruelling slog through misery. However, I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes later. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.

The rest of the film may not be its equal in terms of condensed impact, but it’s of course vital in leading you to that point. These characters lead relatively normal lives — not exceptionally bad, certainly not exceptionally good, but pretty humdrum and bog standard. They all try to better themselves in some way — Sara through diet pills, Harry and Tyrone by getting rich through selling drugs — and it all goes horrible awry.

It may be a descent into misery, then, but director Darren Aronofsky keeps it watchable through pure cinematic skill. The editing, camerawork, lighting, sound design, and special effects are all incredible throughout. There’s a surfeit of ideas and innovations from everyone involved. And yet they are never show-off-y for the sake of it — this isn’t a Guy Ritchie movie. None of the tricks or striking ideas are put there to render the film Cool, even in the way they are in some equally brilliant films (Fight Club, for example). No, everything that is deployed is done so in aid of emulating a real-life feeling or experience, or conveying a concept or a connection. At times it’s breathtaking.

I must also make special mention of the score by Clint Mansell. The primary theme is arguably most famous for being used in The Two Towers trailer a couple of years later (that’s certainly where I discovered it). Something that works fantastically on the trailer for an epic fantasy war movie might not sound like it sits well in a junkie drama, but it really works.

Requiem for a Dream may have a bit of a reputation at this point; one that might put you off viewing it, or possibly only deigning to attempt it in a certain frame of mind. While there is an element of truth to that, it is a brilliant film — not “enjoyable” in the easily-digested blockbuster sense, but as a mind-boggling and awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking, yes. Incredible.

5 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* After the film was given an NC-17, it was decided to release it Unrated — so, technically, it’s not NC-17, it’s Unrated. Ah, the quirks of the US classification system. (There’s also an R-rated version, which is the same except for some shot removals and replacements during the ending.) ^