Saturday, 5 February 2011

No sore pointe

It's been ages since I went to the cinema. In fact, it feels like the last time I sat and watched a film with an audience, we were marveling at how the sound and picture had been magically synchronized. 

OK, I'm exaggerating. But only because my viewing habits have changed so fundamentally in the last few years. I've written before about how American TV shows are now showcasing the very best writing, acting and direction. By contrast, Hollywood's written-by-committee, developed-by-focus-group big screen output, now seems about as memorable as the analogy I would have referenced here, if I could recall what I was going to say. 

So I'm delighted to report that, today, I sat in a theatre and spent 110 minutes being reminded of why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. If you haven't yet seen Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's fifth film, I'd like to share my perspective on why you should (spoiler warning).

Films about any art form are always a tricky business. For a start, the director has to decide how much foreknowledge his audience will bring to the table. Do they want education or exclusivity? Aronofsky pitches his film just right, asssuming that his audience understands the obsessive pursuit of perfection, even if they don't know a plié from a pas de deux.

We're constantly reminded of how much Natalie Portman suffers from her art, with enough close-ups of her battered toes to fill a whole episode of 'Embarrassing Bodies' for foot fetishists. And her tortured relationship with her passive aggressive mother (played by Barbara Hershey, whose face appears to be slowly imploding, like a collapsing star) shows just how much both women have sacrificed in the pursuit of perfection. 

The story itself is a simple one. In fact, early on, the plot of Swan Lake is recapped for us by Edvard Munch's Scream, as played by Vincent Cassel. We're told that it's the story of one woman's ideological conflict, as represented by two swans. In the end, evil wins, but goodness is ultimately liberated. 
Right from the start, the film's conclusion has been clearly signposted, and yet it's the mastery of how the story unfolds that really grabs your attention. The introduction of Mila Kunis initially feels too obvious, as though we're being treated to an X-chromosome version of Fight Club. How long until the shocking revelation that Natalie Portman invented an alter-ego to explore the dark side of her own id?

But the film is above such predictable beats. Kunis manages to come across as grounded and three-dimensional, rather than the raccoon-eyed imaginary troublemaker we expect her to be. This helps Black Swan neatly sidestep the obvious comparisons to All About Eve (nothing to be ashamed of) or Showgirls (God forbid). 

When Kunis finally tempts Natalie Portman to close the door on her controlling mother and kick up her calloused heels, we feel like raising a toast in celebration. There are only so many demure, doe-eyed gestures we can sit through, before demanding that our protagonist throw down a drugged drink and fuck a stranger in a dirty bathroom. And Portman doesn't disappoint, finally fulfilling the potential we saw when she was 12 years old, begging a Frenchman to show her how to assassinate people. 

And then there's the camera-work. Hand-held, kinetic and almost intrusive, the cinematography never lets our fragile star out of sight. We bob on her shoulder as she approaches the ballet studio, and we're right there as she practices her spins in a room full of unforgiving mirrors. 

Other films about dancing have always relied on long-shots, allowing the director to switch his star with a genuine hoofer. Portman needs no such deceit, as we watch her musculature slowly adapt to the rigours of the role. And we're invited to gasp in horror at her exposed ribs, as much as we're encouraged to celebrate her subtle mastery of avian expressiveness.  

For a film about the beauty of perfection, and the perfection of beauty, there's plenty of ugliness on display. Whether it's Winona Ryder's graceless 'retirement', Nina's descent into New York's seedy nightlife, or more shots of nail removal than David Cronenberg's remake of 'The Fly', this is a film that wants you to be uncomfortable. 

And yet the denouement rewards you for enduring the struggle. There's no shocking twist or astounding revelation. Just the sense that the story's end couldn't have come any other way. Having had the plot outlined so early on, there's a crushing inevitability to it. But then, this is a film that revels in the trials of the journey, rather than a celebration of the destination. 

Throughout the film, Nina is encouraged to surrender to the dark side of her own personality. Let herself go. If you have any reservations about ballet or high art, I suggest you follow the advice she was given. It's a film that's hard to watch, but even harder to forget. 

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