"Nice timing!", you might be thinking. Natalie Portman wins the Oscar for best female lead and here I am with my Black Swan review. Well, not to burst your bubble, but Aronofsky's latest only just premiered here in Belgium, so that explains why I'm so fashionably late with my review. It doesn't change the fact that this film definitely deserves a review though, no matter how belated it is. Brace yourself for another one of Aronofsky's descents into madness, and a good one at that.
Back when Aronofsky was making name with Requiem For A Dream, he admitted to liking Perfect Blue (the animation version directed by the late Satoshi Kon), he even copied a scene into RAFD. Ever since people have been looking for references between the two, and those people are really having a field day with Black Swan. Parallels between the main character and similarities between the themes in both movies are not hard to spot. It's funny though how I missed all of that, but was only reminded of Perfect Blue during the train scenes early on. Not until afterwards did I remember the connection between both and did I link other aspects of both films.
This is mostly due to the fact that Black Swan floats on a completely different wave length, aiming for a more bitter, emotional and dramatic atmosphere rather than turn into a purposefully deceptive mind bender like Perfect Blue. And so that's where I'm going to leave the comparison between both films. Black Swan stands well on its own and deserves to be judged on its own merits.
The film follows Portman's character Nina from the point where she's finally granted the lead role in her mentor's latest re-envisioning of Swan Lake. She completely nails the white swan part, but her inability to let go of her emotions seriously hampers her black swan performance. Right then Lily shows up, the complete opposite of Nina's character. She reveals a hidden side to Nina's personality, opening doors to better interpret the black swan. At the same time, Lily turns into her biggest rival for the lead role.
Once upon a time The Wrestler and Black Swan were meant to be one film, visually you can still see the scars of this separation. Black Swan looks a lot more like The Wrestler compared to earlier Aronofsky films, yet he still manages to sneak in quite a few special effects and some impressive visual trickery. Nothing mind-blowing, sometimes even so subtle it's hard to notice the technical competence here. The last half hour is a serious step up visually speaking, coming awfully close to Aronofsky's former glory and featuring a couple of awe-inspiring shots.
Clint Mansell is once again present for the soundtrack. He provides a good score, sometimes a little too bombastic and in your face, but overall very atmospheric and fitting. Sadly it's hard for me to not see him as the man who once composed the soundtrack for Pi, all his other work fails to compare to that. It's a personal thing, I know, but I always get the feeling there's unused potential when I see his name credited on a film's score.
As for the acting, I admit to having very limited interest in the whole Oscar parade, but Portman deserved that little statue like no other. She's virtually in every scene, the camera is constantly on her toes and even though it's a thankful role to play (lots of drama and emotion), it probably wasn't the easiest one she had access to. I haven't been a big fan of Portman these last couple of years, she made some pretty bad calls if you ask me (V For Vendetta, Star Wars, Closer), but here she proves she can shine in the hands of the right director. Kunis and Cassel live pretty much in the shadow of Portman and don't get much time to make something substantial of their characters, but they still do a pretty good job with what they're given.
Aronofsky remains one of the best out there when it comes to filming a character's mental and emotional downwards spiral. He has excellent notions of how to use the visuals and music to heighten the impact of the emotional state of his characters. The entire finale is superb to behold, including a little body horror, awesome dance performances and some first-grade insanity, concluding the film on a definite high note.
Black Swan is definitely a step up from The Wrestler, not really up to par with his first two films yet but only barely lagging behind. Sadly Aronofsky's revival seems to be somewhat short-lived as he's currently working on a completely different project. I know he's been wanting to direct some kind of pulpy superhero fluff ever since Requiem For A Dream landed him some success, but after a couple of failed attempts (RoboCop, Superman) he seems to be getting there with The Wolverine. I'm sure he'll do a pretty good job considering the rest the genre has to offer, but I don't see this new film topping any of his former ones.
Black Swan sees Aronofsky back in good shape. Opinions differ, but I'm glad he left the gritty dramas alone and went back to more familiar territory. Black Swan is a splendid combination of horror, drama and tragedy, eerie and atmospheric from the very first frames til the very end, with a sprawling finale to boot. Can't miss this one, even if you think ballet is a dull subject for a film. Just like Pi, which wasn't really about math either, Aronofsky just uses his setup like a hook and aims straight for emotion. Recommended viewing.