Sunday, 6 February 2011

Black Swan reviewed

Well, Black Swan, yes... Impressive, but if you are expecting to see a film about ballet, then this is not for you. Ballet dancers have decried this film as not portraying the life of dancers as they really are, of having every cliché possible about dance in it. Natalie Portmann has been said to be a passable dancer, but incapable of dancing like a professional (well, she is not a professional ballet dancer!), and of even having the wrong bottom shape. I do agree with that last statement, she does not have a dancer’s body.

None of this does matter very much as Black Swan is not a documentary about ballet.

Obsession is the subject here, the obsession to reach perfection. Umberto Eco said that, referring to writers, the author should die after the work has been produced, as they will get in the way of its reading. In this sense, what is proposed here is the opposite of the celebrity culture, where the work itself is superfluous.

This is also a story about the tortuous relationship between two strong creative characters, those of Nina and the company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); although Leroy is in a position of power, and he uses it. He wants the ballet to be as he has seen it in his artistic vision, pushing his dancers in that direction. The effort, the tension, is, at moments, unbearable.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young ballerina who aspires to dance both the White and the Black Swan in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a very demanding task. Nina’s baggage is her temperamental and possesive mother, a failed dancer who claims she gave up her career when her daughter was born. Psychological blackmail is in action here. Nina must have the career she did not have. Yet, on the other hand, she is somewhat jealous of her daughter’s success, althoug she does not recognize it. She sees herself within her daughter’s body.

Nina, in her early twenties, is still treated as if she were a 12 year old child, as she screams to her mother in one key scene. Her bedroom is a testimony of the way she has been raised: all pink, teddy bears and dolls all over the place, a music box that her mother set it off to put her to sleep every night. Nina feels oppressed at home, with kindness at times, perhaps, but still oppressed.

During the long hours spent in the rehearsals, she tries hard, too hard, to meet Leroy’s expectations. Nina’s mind resents the tension produced by those two. Her body too, bloody rashes appear all over her body as a result of the stress she is under. Finally, she is given both the roles of the White and the Black Swan to dance, yet she has to fight to keep them, especially the darker one. Her mother’s possessive and controlling attitude has inhibited Nina, she is technically good, but she is not letting it go, emotionally. If she does not do it, her character will fail to enthral the demanding New York audience, her ultimate, and final, reward. The Black Swan is what it is: dark. Can she do it? Can she extract from herself the dark side of her personality? The prize is high, but the price to be paid to reach it is also high.

The competition is fierce, she has to be on her toes all the time. Every single member of the company would like to be on her shoes. A night out with another dancer, Lily, just before the opening night of the ballet, whom she suspects is trying to steal her Black Swan role, ends with her in a very confused state of mind, where reality and her paranoid fears mix. She cannot any longer distinguish between them. The following morning, escaping from her mother’s clutches, who attempts to imprison her as she is concerned about the state of her mind, Nina reaches the theatre where she magnificently dances the White and the Black Swan to the rapturous applause of the audience and that of Thomas Leroy... a performance that no one will forget.

Natalie Portman performs a dramatic feast, requiring extraordinary psychological depth and skills, in characterizing both faces of the swan, although I thought at some points her performance was somewhat overwrought. Strong acting, with a big A, it has been said. That A, does is stand for Acting, or for American? Vincent Cassel portrays the arrogant and obsessive character of Thomas Leroy, whilst Mila Kunis excels in her interpretation of the free spirited Lily.

The mostly hand held camera work and the cinematography strongly convey that sense of uneasiness, of imprisonment, of claustrophobic paranoia, of her inability to see the world beyond the walls of the theatre, of her apartment, of her mind. We hardly see any open space throughout the film and, when we do, it is in a contrived street or subway station setting, trains and cars all the time running, running, running...

If you want to see a film about ballet, probably the Black Swan is not for you. There is ballet, and Tchaikovsky’s score is cleverly used to highlight the key dramatic scenes in the film. Black Swan is an intensely gripping psychological thriller which will keep you captivated until the end... an exploration of a mind’s desire to capture perfection, self-destruction being the price paid.

To view the trailer, please click here.

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