Black Swan

It’s a film about obsession, about beauty, about desire and longing, and about jealousy. It will force a range of emotions upon you, from stark fear to arousal, and it has a soundtrack that will move you to tears. In all honesty, it wouldn’t be amiss to declare that Black Swan is a perfect creation of cinema – a masterpiece.

Black Swan is essentially a modern, twisted retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and it’s utterly exhiliarating. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer in a New York City ballet company who, after years of trying, has finally scored the lead role of The Swan Queen in their upcoming production of Swan Lake. However, it’s a precise role, requiring dual characteristics, both that of the Black Swan and the White Swan, and ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) isn’t convinced that she’s capable of exhibiting the right flare. Meanwhile, fellow dancer, newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to effortlessly portray the Black Swan, and Lily starts to fear that the girl is after her part.

Nina, whose character and personality is being repressed by her dominating mother, struggles to find some independence and adopt the free will and spirit of the Black Swan, and she initially befriends Lily, believing that her reckless lifestyle could inspire the freedom she needs for the role. However, it’s not long before Lily seems more of a foe than a friend, and Nina’s not sure she can control the dark side of herself that she is toying with.

Director Darren Aronofsky is famed for his explorative, and imaginative cinematography and Black Swan is a perfect example of this. There are numerous shots throughout that would be worth pausing and just enjoying as still photographs. This combined with intriguing set designs and astoundingly beautiful costumes (designed by Amy Westcott) make Black Swan a visual feast.

Both Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis give career defining performances, particularly Portman, whose acting is surely worthy of Oscar attention, and as little as I know about ballet, it seemed to me they were both spectacular dancers too – certainly they move with a confidence and elegance that charm the viewer.

It would be unfair to neglect to mention Clint Mansell’s superb score that underlies the entire movie. It is heavily drawn from Tchaikovsky’s original music, but whilst that deems it ineligible for Oscar attention, it makes for a dramatic, majestic and emotional score, the likes of which hasn’t really been used with film before. It’s as if the 19th Century composer himself wrote the music.

In terms of genre, Black Swan occupies a definite grey area. In many ways it could be considered a horror. It’s very frightening at times, predominantly due to suspense rather than constant visual shocks, and the shadowy, dark colour palette is especially foreboding. However, it perhaps functions more as a psychological thriller – what you see is rarely what is happening, the ballet director seems to be the architect of some dangerous mind games, and is Nina losing her mind? Undoubtedly there is much more method to the madness than might first appear and it’s this magic of uncertainty and paranoia that will keep you spellbound through to the tragic, heart wrenching climax.

This is a triumph of film making and one to watch again and again. Definitely worth seeing at the cinema.

Certificate: 15
Run time: 108 min
Country of Origin: USA

Note To Film Makers: Endings Matter

Whether it’s the screenwriters, the directors, or the studios – in too many films, someone doesn’t have the balls to finish the convincing, gritty ending that we’ve all been waiting for.

It happens time and time again, a fantastic premise, solid acting, characters that deserve a birth certificate… And then something happens. Somebody interferes. The flow of the movie is interrupted and all excellence scatters on the breeze. Plot holes appear, undermine the integrity of the film, and the whole story subsides, swallowed up in to the depths of the bargain basket and newspaper freebees.

What am I talking about? Some examples off the top of my head; Fracture, Murder by Numbers, Law Abiding Citizen, three films defined by four men of infinite genius, whose devious schemes are nigh on perfect in planning and execution, and yet each is brought down by petty contrivances or deus ex machinas, (usually as simplistic as bad luck).

Then think Se7en. The concept was bold and terrifyingly brutal and arguably it’s one of the best crime thrillers ever created. Why? Because it stuck around even after the final shot (pun intended). The inevitability of that final deadly sin, the sudden violence, the chord it strikes with everyone watching, knowing: “that’s what I would do”. I defy anybody to suggest they would act any differently to Brad Pitt’s character, Detective Mills, as the head of his wife is presented to him in a bloody box. Really, who wouldn’t pull the trigger in anger and hatred at her killer in those initial few seconds after the gruesome revelation? David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker were unafraid to do what so often needs to be done. Let the bad guy win. It’s an unforgiving climax that is memorable and moving because it is real. It is haunting because John Doe (played artfully by Kevin Spacey) succeeds.

Of course, there’s a happy alternative. Let the bad guy lose but back it up with something substantial, some irrefutable reason for their failure. Besides being disappointing, it’s insulting to an audience to spend a film building the character of a criminal mastermind, only to reveal, in some kind of clumsy twist, that he overlooked something elementary, or was dealt a duff card by the hand of God etc. etc.

On a lighter note of the same theme, The Inside Man, Spike Lee’s heist thriller was so entertaining because the robbers got away with it. It allowed you, even welcomed you to share the satisfaction of their success, and that was a joy that stayed with you long after the film finished. My point being that such endings mustn’t always be depressing.

Let me put it like this: if you make an audience root for the bad guy, you’re only going to disappoint them when you set him up to lose. If you create a perceptive villain that overlooks nothing, the audience won’t believe you when he slips up. Be true to the stories you create. People want film making that’s honest, plausible within it’s own context, and unafraid of controversy. Film needs to provide two things, entertainment, and art. With one or the other you’ll usually get by, but land both and you’ve created a masterpiece.

With the rant over, here’s two such masterpieces I’ve seen this year: The American, and The Secret in their Eyes.