Thursday, 24 February 2011

Film Review | Black Swan, dir. Darren Aronofsky

Critics would have you believe the Canadian king of venereal horror - David Cronenberg of course - has with his latest films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, "finally grown up." Said critics can take a flying leap as far as I'm concerned. I've been a Cronenberg devotee practically since I could put one word in front of another: watching his 1983 cult classic Videodrome at an inexcusably young age, with my eyes goggling all the while, and writing, decades later, a dissertation on the very film during my honours year at Uni. It's one of those movies I doubt I'll ever, ever forget. Birthdays, telephone numbers, the names of my grandchildren, sure, they'll be so many stale scones at the back of the bread bin - but not the sadist pirate radio of Videodrome, oh no. Nor Debbie Harry and her cigarette fetish.

However Cronenberg himself, much to this particular critic's dismay, rather seems to have - forgotten, that is. In the past decade he's gone from indescribably visceral little horror films like Rabid and Scanners and The Fly towards the more ostensibly sophisticated fare aforementioned; though I'll allow that his eye for violence has carried over. At a stretch I suppose can see why certain critics would say that shift is tantamount to some sort of cinematic adolescence... yet to conclude so would be to presuppose Cronenberg's earlier work as juvenile. And not juvenile because of a lack of thematic concern, or due to some perceived deficiency in filmmaking flair, nor his technical (or indeed artistic) understanding of the form; no, for Cronenberg has from virtually word the first demonstrated those cinematic assets in abundance. Rather, a certain element would like you to think Videodrome and its ilk childish simply because... they're horror films.

And horror is for babies. Like comic books, and fantasy fiction. You know.

Cronenberg still makes fine films, if of a dramatically different ilk than before, and that's alright. They've been pretty good, even; it's nice to see him exploring pastures new. But the notion that one should dismiss out of hand such a storied body of work as Cronenberg's, simply because a particular connotation of the genre within whose bounds he once worked has been judged unsavoury by a hoity-toity vocal minority - that somehow we should think Videodrome a lesser film than Eastern Promises because one's horror and the other's not - now that, that bothers the hell out of me.

So against the grain, I'll be rooting for Black Swan for Best Picture, come the Oscar ceremony on Sunday: a horror film by any measure - director Darren Aronofsky isn't too school for cool yet - and add to that, a terrific one. The usually wooden Natalie Portman gives the performance of a lifetime as Nina Sayers, a bulimic ballet dancer who wins the lead in a daring new staging of Swan Lake, in which she must play both the black swan and the white. Sheltered, virginal and naive, raised by a woman whose own dreams of dancing came to an inopportune climax - for which fact Erica seems to rather resent her daughter's hard-earned success - the innocence of the white swan comes naturally to Nina, whilst the part's darker half utterly eludes her.

No closer to embodying the power and the sexuality and the spontaneity of the black swan as the grand production's opening night approaches, Nina befriends her beautiful understudy Lily, a vivacious new addition to the troupe and already our dancer in the dark's strongest competition. Seeking to understand the other, to better perform in accordance with everyone's expectations, she yearns to escape the self, and with Lily, with assistance from visionary director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), she does. With unsettling, indeed often grotesque, results.

Black Swan however is unsettling from the first: a beautifully composed and choreographed dream sequence of sorts, of blacks and whites and darks and lights, in which Aronofsky brilliantly reveals Portman's ballet prowess, and foreshadows much of what's to come. Nina is daydreaming of dancing the very part she'll struggle so tortuously to do justice. She is the perfect white swan - and what a surprise it is, to see the cold fish  from V is for Vendetta and The Phantom Menace kick! She is pure, and beautiful, and bright. Then comes the darkness... seducing, corrupting, destroying.

Then reality snaps back - as it will again, finally, irrevocably, mere moments before the closing credits roll.

Black Swan seems a modern-day metamorphosis fable set against the very real horrors of the hellish regime professional dancers must live under, if they are to stand a chance of success. In truth, from the outside looking in, ballet does not appear an ideal backdrop for thrilling cinema, or disturbing cinema. Perfect for inspirational fluff about an underachiever overachieving, or perhaps the stuff of an artsy fartsy rom-com - but not horror. Yet in Aronofksy's hands the awfulness of hand-me-down expectations and aspirations accumulates incredibly quickly. Nina's repressed sexuality comes to the fore, and her social ineptitude, body image issues and a scarification habit. All these things coalesce with such force that the daily ritual Nina undergoes each morning, and with which the real world narrative of Black Swan begins - limbering up in front of a full-length mirror, scuffing the soles of her ballet shoes, and half a grapefruit for breakfast - the ritual comes to represent the downward spiral of her dark days begun again; a cycle, repeating relentlessly, until the very thought of it stopping is a relief unto itself.

I didn't spend so long talking about David Cronenberg for no reason, you know. Black Swan isn't simply horrific: in its later stages, when all the unbridled psychological torment Nina has had to endure explodes from beneath her still-beating breast - when at last she invites the Black Swan and all its corrupting influence in - Aronofsky's latest becomes body horror, very much in the Videodrome mode. And in a few of those moments, most notably during a visit to the emergency room and in the dressing room between acts at the very end (when sometimes her legs bend back), the body horror doesn't quite come off, seeming instead a little too literal, a touch too visceral, to sit well with the gentle suggestion Aronofsky has made a masterclass of. This director's forte has always been the unseen, the unspoken, and when at last we see the Other of our and Nina's nightmares, and hear it speak, Black Swan relinquishes an amount of its power. Nor does the dubious CG some such sequences rely on help matters. Give me pig entrails and TNT, by God, or get out!

By the final curtain call, however, what few fault there are to be found in Black Swan seem a belittling insignificance beside the disquieting magnificence of this truly graceful and utterly gripping film. In her mania, Portman is absolutely marvellous - I doubt there will ever again be a role so tailor-made to her abilities than this; the stark sensibilities of the script by McLaughlin, Heyman and Heinz are exquisite; Clint Mansell surpasses his sterling work on The Fountain with a soaring fusion of scores dramatic and operatic; and as ever, Aronosky is a treat to watch work. Whether or not he is the heir to Cronenberg's grisly mantle I suppose remains to be seen, but on the strength of Black Swan alone, he seems a more suitable candidate than any other.

And in case you were wondering, I mean that in a good way.

Were I to have a vote this Sunday, I'd cast it - and not just to be difficult (though that too) - in favour of the unlikeliest Oscar candidate of the lot: Black Swan. A horror film, thank you very much. One of the best in decades.