Black Swan

Black Swan is very good indeed.

I am not fond of the ballet. As an endeavour, for me, it is right up there emotionally and aesthetically with raffia weaving, with the added drawback that at the end of the ballet you don’t even have a little round thing to put your cafetière on. But we live in an age of metaphorical opulence. So, The Social Network is not “about” Facebook, There Will Be Blood is not “about” drilling for oil, and neither is Black Swan “about” the ballet.

Darren Aronofsky is an intelligent, articulate director and although films in his oeuvre have touched upon abstractions like number theory, religion, faith, love and spirituality (π and The Fountain) it is in the domain of the flesh that he seems to be most confident, coming on like the natural heir to David Cronenberg. In fact I think that as literary adaptations go Requiem For A Dream kicks The Naked Lunch’s talking ass right round the block.

Requiem For A Dream showed an admirably brutal insouciance towards the depredations of its characters’ bodies and psyches. The rot, the pain, the malfunction: that’s just the way things are. It’s still a hell of wrenching film to look at.

The Wrestler was similarly without qualm, and had a parallel agenda. The impossibility of arresting progress. The inability to stay still. The futility of resisting time’s arrow. Bloody thermodynamics.

It’s tempting to look at The Wrestler and Black Swan as the obverse of each other, they certainly have screamingly obvious similarities, but I think that their intentions are completely different.  In The Wrestler Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy The Ram Robinson, is shown to be pitiable and wretched outside of the strictly codified environment of the wrestling ring. He is hopeless with his family. He can’t hold down a job. Only when he’s wrestling does he have any sense of purpose, and it isn’t progressive purpose. It’s about the maintenance of the status quo.

The opposite is true of Black Swan in which Natalie Portman’s character Nina is obsessed by the idea of movement towards perfection. But for her the joy does not lie in the progress. It’s all about culmination. There is no satisfaction in the journey for her. It is one hundred percent about the destination. In this delirium, which basically lasts for the entire duration of the movie, there is no distinction between her life and the performance of Swan Lake she is rehearsing for. It’s not even as if reality and fantasy bleed into each other. There is literally no separation between the two.

Much has been made of this film’s antecedents. It has, even to the casual viewer, less in common with The Red Shoes than it does with Dario Argento’s horror films of the seventies. Mark Kermode, a critic I admire, but whose studied contrariness and confrontational saltiness I find a bit wearing, has likened Black Swan to Deep Red and Terror At The Opera, two of Argento’s gialli. I can see what he’s driving at but Black Swan reminds me far more of the saturated, heightened realities of Argento’s supernatural films Suspiria and Inferno.

There are also, I think, clear lines of descent from two non-consecutive Cronenberg films: Videodrome (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988).  Dead Ringers is an eerie, detached nightmare featuring twin gynaecologists both played by Jeremy Irons. It has at its core a morbid fascination with duality and the thinness of the membrane between the socially acceptable and the psychopathically unhinged.

Videodrome is concerned with, among other things, transcending the limits of the flesh and questioning the validity of any attempt to describe an objective reality. From a narrative point of view the second half of Videodrome looks like a bit of a mess, but the central character is seen to don a virtual reality helmet halfway through the story and we never see him take it off. The descent into incoherence may be the point. It’s difficult to say.

There is no such lack of coherence in Black Swan, but it definitely has its fun with duality, with bodily morbidity and with the uncertain perspective of an obsessed mind.

Portman is an absolute revelation. Who knew she had enough charisma to flame Vincent Cassel off the screen? Not me. I’m glad she got her Oscar. I hope she finds the courage to try more roles like this in the future.

The performance of Black Swan I was at was the first one in Inverness post-Oscars, and whilst it would be nice to write about the film without touching on the viewing experience in this instance I find that I can’t.

It’s very difficult to kill a good film. Scanners looked great on a disintegrating 16mm print fed through two clapped out Bell & Howell projectors the first time I saw it. The Evil Dead looked magic in a scratchy print at the long-since knocked down Tower Cinema in Leeds in the early eighties.

You can wound a good film though, and Vue in Inverness consistently and pointlessly make this their principal aim in life, seemingly.

Bad enough that the audience consisted of a large number of morbidly obese harpies, lured in by Oscar hype I assume, who giggled nervously at every mention of sex. And there are a lot of mentions of sex as this is a film largely concerned with Nina’s burgeoning concupiscence as the role of the Black Swan begins to subsume that of the virginal White Swan. I mean seriously. We’re all grown ups. It’s 2011. Do we still giggle at masturbation and oral sex? Looks like it.

Bad enough too that there was a guy in the audience who couldn’t put his mobile phone away for 108 minutes. His mobile phone, I might add, which had more luminous output than Commissioner Gordon’s fucking Bat Signal.

This is all just audience idiocy. You don’t get it at Eden Court so much. You get it at Vue all the time.

No, what bugs me the most is the contempt the cinema itself has for the film. I’m a credits nerd. I like to stick around until they’ve finished, or what I call “the end of the film”. Now I accept that at the first threat of having to read something some people need to run like Usain Bolt to the exits. It’s a bit annoying and distracting for those of us interested in “the end of the film”, but it’s their choice. Occasionally they will miss a little post-credit treat. So what? Fuck ‘em.

Other folk will stand up in front of the credits whilst they put their coats on and have a bit of a natter. That’s just rude, but again. I can live with it. People are idiots.

Where I draw the line is when the cinema itself obstructs you from watching the credits and this is a Vue speciality. At the end of the last scene of Black Swan, the precise second the (black on white and hard to read) credits started to roll the staff turned the lights up full.

I stood, or more literally, sat my ground. But even as the moody, entrancing Clint Mansell score was drawing to a gentle close they started pumping out the vile ear slurry of Good Enough by Dodgy. It’s depressing.

Film is a wonderful medium and cinema can be a transcendent experience, but Vue make it horrible.

They are dastardly and I do not like them.



And finally, whoever put in my head the idea that every time I see the name Darren Aronofsky I have to sing it to the tune of If I Were A Rich Man… I don’t much like you either.

5 comments on “Black Swan

  1. The Black Swan✮✮✮✮
    I didn’t know if I liked this and then driving home I remembered I did.I
    It’s multi-layered masterpiece about the chronological descendance of manipulative paranoia, guilt, self- mutilation, schizophrenia, and madness, polarized with, and paralyzed by innocence, purity, naivety, all manifestly inherent in the female of the species, in this case Natalie Portman/Nina Sayers
    Oh yes and there was ballet in it as well.
    The camerwork was amazing, as you sit on the shoulders of the dancers and are taken with them in the sweeps and lunges (and try as you might you will not spot the camera in any reflections in the mirrors)
    This movie satisified the criteria required for the genre of horror, but only in the Lars Von Trier ‘Antichrist’ sense, so this ain’t no Freddy Kruger in a tutu.
    Like other Darren Aronofsky films, it is worth a second look, if only to scratch again the subliminal signposts and soak up the spectacle of grandiose art, which as we all know, is fuelled by intense pain.

  2. Can I just register the fact that I do love ballet and have appreciated many live performances and found wonder in the experiences. Also as you two both know I am not a film buff of any kind therefore probably did not appreciate the camera work etc. However I do know when I have seen a good film and in my opinion this was not just not good – it was awful. I was not impressed but because it is a little while since I saw it and I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable at the time I can’t be too specific about what was wrong. I do remember being irritated by repeated shots of her face and the way the camera followed her arms and face through so many potentially moving ballet scenes. The storyline appeared to me to be a mess and it could have been cut considerably and made the same points. Every point regarding her obsession, her mother and her madness was hammered home. I wouldn’t go again but it must have left an impression because I do want to tell everyone how bad it was.

  3. After your insightful comments and engaged criticism, I’m sure you will be glad to know that the main thing I have taken from your review is singing “Darren Aronofsky” to not only the “If I Were A Rich Man” tune, but the Gwen Stefani version of “if i were…”

    I always avoid films with Natalie Portman, after the dreadful Garden State and those Star Wars ones. Not into V… either. And I’m not into D.A. (na na na na na) films either, since a friend made me watch Requiem for a Dream, which I didn’t like.

    But I do like your reviews!

  4. I missed it! But I bet I’m in Camp Frew :- )

    Great review John, and oh, how I sympathise with you sitting at the ghastly Vue (gathering your brows like gathering storm, no doubt). I too am a ‘sitter-outer’, but I’m looking for a ‘Richard’ and an ‘Alison’ in the credits. It’s a habit of mine (…now I’ve gone and got ‘Echo Beach’ in my head …it’s called an ‘ear worm’ btw).

    Keep up the good work.

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