When writing about the London Film Festival I like to compare and contrast in order to convey the mentally claustrophobic experience of seeing so many movies in such a short space of time. My reaction to one bleeds over into another, or informs my thoughts on both: watching both Biutiful and Essential Killing in one miserable afternoon linked them together in a way that only an exorcist could break apart. Connections grow, parallels become obvious, and the Festival becomes a blob of mushed-up celluloid instead of a series of discrete cinematic events. (This metaphor makes more sense in my head.)
And yet one movie stood out so far from the rest that it’s hard to connect it to any other, despite similarities of theme or execution. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a bomb that detonated in the middle of the festival, and nothing else could have the same impact: even Miike’s 13 Assassins paled in comparison. Early reports suggested Aronofsky had made something special, but on the page it sounded uninspiring: a ballet dancer gets a bit depressed when the pressure is on to deliver a radical new version of Swan Lake. So far, so Suspiria / Red Shoes. However, nothing could have prepared me for this assault on my senses, this barrage of hallucinogenic beauty that rendered me insensible, shaking and hyperventilating and frenetically applauding as the credits rolled.
Aronofsky has hinted at this ability before: his use of repetitive loops of imagery in Pi and Requiem for a Dream had a kind of hypnotic, rhythmic effect, and it was evident in The Fountain albeit in a less staccato form. Here he has combined his facility for creating propulsive, dialogue-free set-pieces as in his early films with the confrontational realist photography of The Wrestler and a narrative that can provide the sense of awe felt during the final moments of The Fountain: a fusion of all of his best work. No one else can end a movie as well as Aronofsky, and Black Swan tops everything else he has done.
The less you know about Black Swan, the better, but it’s safe to say the film is about talented ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), chosen to play both the Swan Queen and Black Swan in a new production of Swan Lake directed by lascivious maverick Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). It’s a role she might not have the ability to pull off, and her fears threaten to consume her. Her drive to succeed is stoked by the awful behaviour of her possessive and controlling mother (a magnificently creepy Barbara Hershey), sending her into a tailspin of paranoia and suspicion exacerbated by the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a free-spirit who embodies the sexuality Nina has suppressed but must harness in order to portray the Black Swan. Her grasp on reality begins to slip as the night of the first performance approaches, a process depicted by Aronofsky through unreliable imagery, nausea-inducing sound effects, subtle but nasty body horror, and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.
A good case can be made that Aronofsky is using obvious tricks to convey Nina’s unravelling mental state, but when they are as effective as this, it doesn’t matter – if you’re willing to give yourself over. As with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the use of easily recognisable imagery (e.g. mirrors in Black Swan to denote fractured sense of identity, elevators to denote movement between different levels of consciousness in Inception) allows the audience to swallow information on a gut level while the movie focuses on delivering story through action, not exposition. Yes, Inception‘s first hour is taken up by explaining the rules of the movie, and Black Swan spends some time explaining the story of Swan Lake in detail, but the payoff for being led by the hand early on is that Nolan and Aronofsky can later use thematic visual short-cuts with confidence that we are clued-up and ready for the ride.
Both movies end with long setpieces that would not be possible without these oft-criticised compromises, if they can even be called that. When did we become so jaded that the use of universally recognised shorthand to allow viewers to absorb information on a subconscious level is considered a bad thing? The benefit is immense: both Nolan and Aronofsky have created unforgettable experiences, riveting barrages of pure cinema that start calmly before galloping towards logical but unexpected conclusions, leaving the audience exhausted and grateful. As with last year’s Inglourious Basterds, both of these movies made me excited in a way no other works of art ever could. The sense of propulsion, of being rushed through the imaginations of two genuine artists without a chance to catch my breath, was truly thrilling.
The one thing Black Swan has over Inception is one truly magnificent performance. Natalie Portman excels as Nina, going to unbelievable physical and emotional lengths to depict the dancer’s paranoia and confusion. I doubt even her fans were aware that she could pull off a performance as wrenching and brave as this: it’s as if Brando had done dozens of relatively unchallenging movies before On The Waterfront, or De Niro had started out in the woeful crud of his later years before showing up in Mean Streets. Portman is that good. I’m genuinely amazed that she hasn’t already been given every acting award going, just to save time. It’s the performance of the year, and Black Swan wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without her at its centre.
Every aspect of the movie is almost perfect. Kunis and Hershey do career-best work, and Cassel triumphs over some unfortunate underwriting through sheer charm alone, with some fantastic moments coming late in the film. Soundtrack composer Clint Mansell has the unenviable task of fleshing out Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece and by God he pulls it off, playing off Tchaikovsky’s themes in the non-ballet scenes and wisely leaving the original music to power the stunning dance sequences in the final act. It’s the kind of bravura score that converts people into classical fans: the crescendo in the last few minutes will likely knock you sideways. Matthew Libatique’s naturalistic, monochrome photography is also worthy of note: it’s gritty and unaffected but still conveys the grandeur of the Swan’s tale, effortlessly eluding the dancers and giving the audience a closer look at the art of dance than is usual. It’s the key to the immersive nature of the film.
That might be the reason some people have found Black Swan unpalatable. Most of Aronofsky’s influences are obvious — Hitchcock, Powell/Pressburger, Argento, Verhoeven and Cronenberg are all present and correct — but it’s telling that Aronofsky, in his truncated presentation before the screening, made reference to Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void. Without prompting he segued into elaborate praise for Noé’s nightmare vision, recommending that everyone see it as soon as possible (yet another reason to praise Aronofsky). This recommendation seemed odd: Black Swan seemed, from trailers and clips, to be conventionally filmed compared to Noé’s bold project, which put us inside the mind of its protagonist by using a remarkable soundscape and innovative visual effects to convince us we were experiencing a final journey into a nightmare world beyond the grave.
Aronofsky can’t use the same tricks as Noe, but he comes as close as you can. Portman is constantly onscreen, those searching cameras pushing close in on her, the stunning sound design cranked up as far as possible so we are surrounded by music, noise, the cracking of her body as she punishes herself for her art. The audience winced and gasped with every flexed toe, clipped nail, and stretched ligament. As with Noé’s kaleidoscopic work, you see how redundant 3D technology can be when a truly brilliant filmmaker has the ability to draw you into his or her protagonist’s POV. When Black Swan was over my head swam: rushing out of the cinema to complete a prior engagement was made almost impossible by the disconnect between the real world and the world in which I had been submerged. The sense that we are trapped with Nina inside her madness is palpable: critics say overwrought, I say overwhelming, brave, unique.
There’s good reason to expect that Aronofsky’s gleeful mixing of high and low culture will annoy some, and his use of imagery may smack others as unsubtle. Fair enough, but if I can convince one person that the tide of positive reviews that have poured forth over the past few days are a true measure of this mesmerising work, and not just the product of empty hype, I will be happy. Aronofsky has aimed straight at the gut as much as at the brain and heart, and in the process has created a dark fairy-tale of unbelievable power. It’s the best film of the festival, and the best film of Aronofsky’s career: a pure fusion of sound and image of such mastery that everything else released this year stands cowering in its shadow.