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Black is white: White is black: and then some

The Black Swan – Darren Aronovsky

“And the Oscar for Original Music for 2011 goes to Black Swan and Pyotyr Illyitch Tchaikowski. Unfortunately Pyotyr can’t be with us tonight but he would like to thank His Imperial Majesty Tsar Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Romanov for his unfailing support and not forgetting his mum Alexandra Andreyevna and dad Ilya Petrovich. Finally to his ex wife wife Nadezhda Von Meck, Pyotyr would like to say ‘how dya like them apples baby?’”

Sorry folks couldnt resist it: in a week where Ricky Gervais has either made a complete arse of himself on prime time TV; or deliciously and unmercifully sent up the whole awards industry, or perhaps both, the idea wouldn’t go away. And as we, well I anyway, like nothing more than to take the piss out of the narcissistic mind numbing self absorption of the Golden Globes contenders, it is tempting to imagine that if my scenario was played out for real, someone, somewhere in the audience adorned in a dress costing nigh on the national deficit of Ireland, would complain “it’s not good enough, if we give him an award, the least the guy could do is to turn up”.

Black Swan is good: at times very good; both absorbing and shocking at the same time. The emotionally oppressive and physically obsessive atmosphere of the ballet world as one might imagine it, is powerfully and unsettlingly captured with quiet but atmospheric assurance by Director Aronovsky. Better still, Black Swan creates a quite unique atmosphere with originality and wonderful visual style.

So unusual and distinctive is the tone Aronovsky develops that at first one feels a bit lost: it is not at all clear in the beginning quite what sort of film this is: straight drama, unwinding thriller, horror? This is an unusual device which I cannot recall having seen before: instead of drawing us in and sustaining us through the uncertainties and surprises of narrative and plot, Aronovsky plays with our emotional expectations and just when we think we are safely in one or other of the genres above, he hits us with an image or response that makes us wonder again quite what kind of journey he is taking us and his characters on. Once I let him drive the bus so to speak I began to enjoy the ride more and more.

So Black Swan is original in more ways than one which perhaps should not surprise us from the Director of the extraordinary Pi. It is also as assured as the very successful The Wrestler. Interestingly I guess there are parallels between Black Swan and The Wrestler: both inhabit a world where normal emotions are subjugated and inter-personal tensions and explosions to which communities of obsessives are prone, break out violently without warning.

It is a moot point whether it is better to see this film knowing the story of Swan Lake really well or like me; just having a vague awareness of the bare bones of the narrative of perhaps the most famous ballet of all time. That there are parallel and interwoven narratives will hardly be a surprise and I guess this realization probably lies at the heart of Aronovskys unusual approach to narrative tension and suspense mentioned above.

Natalie Portman as Nina is intense and emotionally both vulnerable and unreadable; confused and confusing; explicitly and passionately sexual one minute and ashamed and repulsed by the power of her own visceral passion the next: she brings off a very difficult challenge which is the leitmotif of the narrative itself: how to express both the pure, fragile beauty of the White Swan Queen yet also capture the sinister power and animalism of the Black Swan as well. It is, by its very nature a bravura acting role with at times quite a lot ‘acting’ going on; but for once in a good way, for Aronovsky is not seeking naturalism here, quite the opposite. Just the kind of role the Academy loves so I guess there’s an Oscar on its way to the Portman mantelpiece.

Barbara Hershey offers very capable and unsettlingly freaky support as Nina’s overpoweringly protective mother living out her own lost career and life disappointments through her beautiful daughter. Mila Kunis is suitably opaque as Lily, Nina’s rival for the role of the Swan Queen in the new version of Swan Lake being mounted by a not much more than adequate Vincent Cassel (Mesrine et al) as Thomas Leroy. Winona Ryder pops up briefly but effectively as Thomas’s previous princess the outgoing Swan Queen: hell hath no fury like a Swan Queen scorned: well at least dumped.

Black Swan is an interestingly tense, at times unsettling and occasionally shocking little film: visually stunning and darkly and cunningly edited. Some of the reactions to the film which will be literally grossed up as the madness of the Oscar season approaches, are a bit fanciful with parallels drawn with Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull and rather more intellectual depth attributed to this reworking of the Swan Lake theme than Arnovsky’s actual film can seriously sustain. That said: well worth the price of admission.