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Black Swan

Film Five Stars
Coming out of the viewing of Black Swan my wife said that there were going to be two groups of people coming out of the cinema. The audience members who know Darren Aronofsky's films and knew what to expect will be those coming out of the cinema having enjoyed the film, and those who went to see a Natalie Portman or a ballet related film will be coming out of the cinema somewhat bemused and perhaps disappointed.

However those who went expecting a great film, a strong psychological thriller, a wonderful set of performances from some great actors and actresses, something that would affect them and keep them thinking and talking after the film was finished, were in the right cinema.

Black Swan is a powerful film that will affect you, I realised that halfway through when I felt a growing tension which, by the end of the film, had my stomach twisted and knotted. Come the following morning, as I write this review, I can remember the dreams I had last night about the story and the characters. Black Swan got right inside my head.

Plot.pngNatalie Portman plays Nina, a ballet dancer who is totally driven and consumed by her art. She lives with her obsessive and controlling mother Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, a former ballerina herself who is pushing and controlling her daughter to become a better and better dancer.

Nina has always strived to become the best but has never made it to the lead as that role has always been taken by Beth, played by Winona Ryder. As we begin the story Beth is being replaced for the artistic director's new performance of Swan Lake. The director is Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, a manipulative, demanding and charismatic man who is pushing for nothing but the best.

He has to cast the lead role for Swan Lake and Nina believes she can do it. Technically she is perfect and her performance of the graceful and innocent White Swan is faultless. Leroy would cast her in a second however she struggles with his vision of the Black Swan, a sensual, more impulsive and much darker character.

Lily, played by Mila Kunis, is a new dancer to the Company and she catches Leroy's eye. While she is not what he wants for the White Swan, she embodies what he sees for the Black Swan, and so the strange friendship and rivalry between Nina and Lily begins.

Nina begins to realise that she must find the darker side of herself and release it, letting go of the innocent, controlled side, and as she gets closer to Lily and to Leroy she face the pressures of dancing the lead in his Company, she begins to change.

TheFilm.pngOne of the things I like so much about Black Swan is the way it doesn't have many of the Hollywood conventions to the film, nothing from the standard repertoire of tricks to set you off kilter, no great back story that needs to be explained, you hit the ground running and everything in the film comes through the story and the characters. You explore and experience their story as they do, and you're never pulled out of their world, something many other films feel the need to do to offer you more information or explanation, another view of events outside of the one you should be concentrating on.

Darren Aronofsky doesn't pander to that type of audience member, he keeps you in the world and the viewpoint that you should be in to experience the story, he never over explains events, delves into back story to try and help you believe in the characters and situations. Instead he piles the pressure on the film, the writing and the actors and actresses to deliver all of this in the story, in the moment. He makes you work for the story, and what you get is a fantastic experience from it.

The praise shouldn't all be going to Aronofsky though, we should look to the script from Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John McLaughlin who have all helped to deliver this fantastic film which lays down the gauntlet for the rest of the year.

With Black Swan it's hard to sympathise or connect with the lead, and we don't see much viewpoint outside the confines of how the character experiences them. You see the events as they happen to the lead character and you see them as her eyes see them. Even at the end of the film there's no explanation of what has passed, you have to come to your own conclusions and look back on the film. For those of you who are concerned this is a film that leaves you hanging, don't be concerned, it's clear what has happened and what everyone is now experiencing come the end, but like real life there are many moments on the way that remain unexplained and so many questions unanswered.

It's confusing and filled with unknowns, and it's this feeling that permeates through the film, growing from quite early on and leads to the unsettling feeling building in your stomach and the confusion in your mind which stay with you for some time afterwards. As I said at the beginning, I even dreamed of the film that night.

It's not all great praise though, for me Black Swan started on the back foot as soon as it opened. The style of filming immediately brought up a barrier between me, the character, and the film. The format is wide and the camera is pushed close to the characters, giving us a close and personal perspective. All this would be well if it wasn't for the handheld camera work that is very shaky throughout these opening sequences.

I'm not sure if this calmed down during the film and allowed me to get drawn in, or if I just got used to it, but in these opening scenes were very off-putting and I struggled to keep focused on what was actually happening in amongst the huge rapidly shaking heads and images.

While the introduction did its best to push me away from the film and the story, it wasn't long before I was captured and had forgotten all about it. Try as it might, the filming style of this opening couldn't keep me away from the story or the performances.

I can't go on enough about how much the film affected me, and if you read anything I've written about good films you'll know that for me this is one of the biggest and best aspects of cinema, that a film touches and affects you so much that it stays with you beyond the closing credits. With Black Swan this feeling went much further and it still has me contemplating about the story and the performances.

The story develops well, although I am looking back and wondering how the story would have been had we had a gentler introduction to the unbalanced nature of the lead, something that crept up slower and relatively unnoticed in the background stretching out that period of time before you realised that there was something wrong with the character.

I felt that it was quite soon before we were seeing tangible results of something being wrong with Nina and it didn't keep that fact away from us for long. It was pretty obvious quite early that things weren't right, but it wasn't a negative aspect of the film, just handled in a different way.

I do hark back to what I said about the employment of Hollywood tricks and traits, there's no lulling us into a false sense of security, believing that all is well and then pulling the rug from under our feet, again we're kept within Nina's field of view, experiencing the things she is and not really knowing the true meaning.

Not only do we feel the uncertainties of what was happening to the character but there was that growing unsettling feeling early on, and it wasn't big moments either, it was down to small, hardly discernable moments, and that feeling grew as the story progressed. A story that just keeps building and doesn't let up, delivering some shocking and unsettling moments that turn that feeling inside your stomach just a little bit tighter, and keeps delivering until the end.

I don't know what I expected from the ending of the film, but it definitely delivered a powerful conclusion that lasts over several scenes.

Apart from that opening moment the cinematography is superb throughout and some of the imagery was mesmerising. I remember being particularly amazed at the use of the mirrors in the dance studio, and some of the fast cut images we see in the nightclub scene, as well as the filming of the first performance of Swan Lake on stage - that scene looked very complex to handle with the moving off and on stage and controlling the performers in the wings.

What caught my attention most through the film though were the performances. Barbara Hershey was superb and her character was at times frightening and unnerving, coupled with little touches of her character around the apartment you truly gained a sense of an ambitious and controlling woman. Her reaction with the cake was one that did take me aback and draw a breath, as did Natalie Portman's reaction to her which made you feel as though this was a regular performance and something that Nina had to control and deal with every day.

Vincent Cassel was very enjoyable in his role, and his wonderful on screen charisma was perfect for the part. He felt as though he controlled everything with ease and the disappointment was very apparent when Nina was struggling with the dance of the Black Swan. For me this was one of the key dynamics of the film that fuelled the pressure upon her, and it was a pressure you could believe and feel.

However it was Natalie Portman that stole the show and performed so well with her character. Of course she had a wonderful script and director to work with, but her performance is so subtle and utterly convincing through her entire transformation and I totally connected with her, feeling her confusion, uncertainty and her fear with every single look. She was perfect for the role of the innocent ballerina and is deserving of an Oscar, of that there is no doubt.

Overall.pngBlack Swan is a powerful film that draws you in with the main character that is superbly portrayed by Natalie Portman. The story is brilliantly written and filmed, and Darren Aronofsky delivers a mesmerising film that unsettles and unnerves to the end, a similar feeling to the one I had during Requiem for a Dream.

It's not just Portman who delivers a fantastic performance, although she does capture you and captivate throughout, Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel are also excellent and provide great strength in the key relationships with Portman's character.

You really do feel with the character and as unsettled and as uncertain as she is, so too are you. It's not just a mark of her excellent performance or the relationships with the other characters who are equally well delivered, but the way that the story is written and crafted on screen.

Aronofsky's Black Swan is a superb film that will undoubtedly be looked back on as one of the films of the year, and it's one of those films that I'd love to watch again, convinced that it would affect me in exactly the same way.

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