Monday, 11 July 2011

Black Swan - Take a Dive off a Pi Bridge

I will never get over my first experience of Aronofsky. I'd been invited over to my boyfriend's for a meal and a movie with his folks, and stupidly they believed me when I said Pi was supposed to be good. The following hour and a bit was excrutiating, as together we endured the black and white nightmare of a man who's quite good at maths staring into the sun and getting terrible headaches. And then there was that soundtrack. Squealing, raucous, cacaphony... and other words that describe loud noises. My God! Honestly, I know there's meant to be a lot more to Pi, but when I said it was a bit arty the level of expectation in the room was Sixth Sense, not Eraserhead. The only way that evening could have been worse was if I'd forced us all to politely sit through Oldboy.

So I was laden with trepidation about Black Swan, but having liked The Wrestler, and been easily swayed by rave reviews during the awards season, I was willing to give it a try.

The following is for you, then, if like me you're:
  • A huge film fan
  • Regularly attend your local art-house cinema
  • Take pleasure in watching films with subtitles
  • ARE NORMAL            
You, yes, you! You have a life with people in it who can't name a single Bergman film and couldn't give a flying fuck who Werner Herzog is. You watch French New Wave films when they're on late at night, but you've also seen every film Arnie's ever made. Because you are normal. You hang out with people who like blockbusters. You go to the cinema with them to see Paul and The Hangover (not Bride Wars though, gotta draw the line!) And the arty stuff??? Well that's special. It's precious and it's important and we don't want everyone to know about it. (We love it like we used to love indie bands that no-one had ever heard of.) So, YOU! What you need to know about the huge thundering behemoth that is Black Swan - with all it's big stars and awards - is whether you can watch this with your in-laws, without squirming in your seat? And the answer is no you can't. Even though it's about ballet. 
Aronofsky, I was right not to trust you. I remember when this film first came out and, high on the wave of critical acclaim, every two-bit local news team in the country was eagerly sending out real ballet dancers to review it. "Is that what the world of ballet is really like?" they'd pant. "Oh yeah, we all fantasize about hot lesbo romps with our leading lady, throw up if we eat a finger of cake frosting and live at home with stage mothers until we're well into our 30s", I don't remember anyone replying. Poor things. Watching Black Swan with a bunch of people you work with every day must have been quite a similar experience to the one I had watching Pi.

So yeah, sound the Aronofsky warning siren please. Black Swan is definitely very reminiscent of Pi. As a portrait of a woman going mad, it's OK, but does it deserve all the praise? I don't think so. It sure ain't Shutter Island. It doesn't matter how many times I read that this film is supposed to be a dark, psychological thriller. I just don't get it. I mean I get it, I understand it, I just don't get why it's a psychological thriller. It all seems so very old hat to me. Every moment is signposted and presented on a plate, like that woman in the Sheeba catfood ad presenting her kitty with rancid old pet food dressed up to look like a gourmet meal. A flourish of music tells you exactly how to feel at any given moment, and actually gives the game away completely at the few scary bits. Seriously, there are more surprises in Tea With Mussolini than there are in Black Swan (plus that's a film I'd gladly watch again).  

True, the performances are wonderful, that I will concede. Portman is magnificent, Cassel as strange and enigmatic as always, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder all great in support, but the story is awful. Totally dreary and completely unlovable. I've had it up to here *indicates top of head* with so called difficult directors. Just get over yourselves and make something we can watch!

It's a commonly held opinion that a good script can be ruined by a bad director, but a bad script hasn't got a cat in hell's chance even with the best. But that's not the whole story is it? More often a so/so script is heralded as the second coming just because big names are attached. There's far too much of the emperor's new clothes mentality in the film industry. And therein lies the problem I have with Black Swan. It wouldn't work at all without the outstandingly brilliant performances. I tried to imagine it sans visual tricks with a cast of nobodies, and concluded it would be.... rubbish. Even more so.

One of the things that came across most strongly whenever 'real ballet stars' did a review of the film was that the dancing in Black Swan wasn't up to their exacting standards. (I couldn't tell myself, I thought Portman was amazing. Her training for this film surely puts her in the De Niro/Raging Bull school!) Often they wondered why a real ballerina hadn't been cast. Well, that's obvious. The film needed an actress of Portman's calibre to carry the whole nonsensical melee. And don't forget she needed a film worthy of serious physical and mental exertion to help us all forget her tedious walk-throughs as Queen Amidala! With Aronofsky's post-Wrestler populist appeal combined with a still intact arty reputation and big money backers, the timing for Black Swan was perfect. No wonder it took so many people in. It's only now the dust has settled (all over those shiny awards), now the film is reaching the masses on dvd, that it's clear to see 'we was had'.

Incidentally, I am aware this is less of an actual review and more of a general rant (check my new byline!) but that's why it's a blog post. If you want to know the actual story of Black Swan (such that it is) check IMDb. Seriously though, I wouldn't bother. It's just a re-hash of Swan Lake itself. And I've told you what you need to know. Save your pennies and knock it off your lovefilm waiting list now. 

That said, there is actually one thing I'm grateful to Black Swan for... If people think it represents art-house cinema fare then I'm happy to propogate the myth, and steer them on a path well away from me! If Black Swan is for everyone, then everyone's welcome to it. Me, I'm still an indie kid at heart, and I want to keep the really good stuff secret. Just for us!

Black Swan Poster, Fox Searchlight Pictures