21 January 2011


Let's get this out of the way, as I've already said it on Twitter and I'm tired of hearing it from people. To call Black Swan porn is pretty much the same as calling Brokeback Mountain porn. Both feature homosexual sex scenes as the minor part of the larger story, and you'd be wrong to call either pornographic. So shut the fuck up. Righto then!

In Black Swan, Nina Sayers is a dedicated ballerina who bags the lead role of the Swan Queen in her company's radical new take on Swan Lake. She seems the perfect embodiment of the White Swan, all lightness and fragility and innocence, but her role also comprises the dark twin, the Black Swan. As opening night draws closer, Nina finds that releasing her self control might be the only way to succeed. As her preparation transcends her performance, the Black Swan takes her into a psychological nightmare.

As mentioned above, there's more to Black Swan than what appears on the surface, at least as far as the trailers go. I'm eager to avoid building up anybody's expectations, because your best course of action in seeing this film, and you really should see it, is to do as Nina does and lose control, letting it take you for a ride. If you let it, this film will grab you by the brain and rattle you up, down, around and all over for a rock solid and visually beautiful 100 minutes of psychological terror.

Let's kid ourselves though- unlike Nina, there are no two ways about this. As much as it deserves all of the attention its received at awards ceremonies, whether for Natalie Portman's astonishing performance or for the dazzling visuals, this is not the usual kind of dry drama you get being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It's actually closer to Shutter Island, but with less self-restraint. In short, it is a massive, honking, flappy-armed melodrama.

It's not a film of any dense subtlety, and once you get into it, what you see is pretty much what you get, as far as what director Darren Aronofsky is "trying to say". The colour scheme deals largely in blacks and whites, mirrors can be found wall-to-wall, and the body horror that goes on throughout is decently visceral, without a lot of restraint. Aronofsky's restraint is in taking the story of Nina seriously despite using all of the tools of melodrama that he can lay his hands on. There's potential here for a film that could tip over into outrageous Evil Dead or Drag Me to Hell style histrionics, but while a Sam Raimi version of Black Swan would be a lot more fun, I struggle to imagine it being better.

However clear the subtext might be, the straightforward psychological horror is compensated for by a slack grasp on reality, which unseats just about every bit of security you have going in. Nina is the audience identification figure, fitting in with a recent trend of unreliable narrators in grown-up cinema of late. Her brain disintegrates more and more as we go on, and her delusion and hallucinations are all we have to go on for certain stretches of the film. Portman amazed me in this role, finally bursting out of the stigma of Star Wars to show everyone her true capabilities, and really just making a film that could have fell apart with a lesser performer in the leading role.

Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey are just as impressive as Nina's rival and stage mother, respectively. Winona Ryder and Vincent Cassel make good but slightly OTT appearances that are paled into normalcy as the atmosphere of the film itself ramps up and overwhelms them. I hasten to say once again that this is an incredibly visceral film. I understand that some have went and found this film on the Internet, in their impatience with UK distribution. They should go and see this on a big screen, because there's just so much detail to take in.

Hell, I'd love to see this film on an IMAX screen. It's not merely the resplendent art direction or the sensational cinematography, but the way that Aronofsky turns that visual competency to serve the horrific elements of the film. In every frame, your focus is pulled towards something, but every now and then, just left of centre, something might happen that frightens you. A photo might move, or a reflection might alter. On a regular screen, this film had me transfixed. Transported, even. On an IMAX screen, it might just blow out my mind entirely.

Black Swan should be experienced. It's not to say that everyone will love it, but if you love film, and film is a visual medium, it follows that you're going to be consumed by Black Swan. The story is told through huge melodramatic devices, but it's all the better for the fact that the director and the lead actress take it seriously. It wields enormous and transcendent power over a willing audience, and it's as brilliant a horror film as we're likely to see for a long time.

Black Swan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Black Swan, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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