Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lesbian sex, masturbation and a chick who grows wings


Good genre films often pull our strings in welcome ways, touching on familiar tropes and themes that we, the audience, have helped to create, speaking a common language that operates on levels both conscious and subconscious.  There's an element of mythos in genre films, a shared understanding of human nature and the things we fear and desire. This is very different from films who manipulate their audience, using images in an almost violent, pornographic way, forcing us to react to something instead of offering to enter into dialogue with us.

Darren Aronofsky has now proven himself capable of making both kinds of films.
Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream remains one of the most manipulative - and therefore one of the most problematic - films I have ever seen, an exercise in using the visceral power of cinema to get calculated reactions out of his audience. Requiem is the cinematic equivalent of Romanticism in music and literature, sentimental and emotional beyond belief and thereby false and rather ugly. Black Swan is just as over the top, if not more so, yet it remains a highly enjoyable experience throughout due to the fact that it is an astoundingly honest and pure exercise in genre storytelling. The film is a giddy mixture of the kind of sleaze-fest that Brian DePalma became known for in the 70's and 80's - proudly spending a great deal of completely unnecessary screentime on Natalie Portman's writhing body - and the perverted psychological thrillers that became the mainstay of directors such as Roman Polanski (see especially his Repulsion and The Tenant). Masquerading as an art film, Black Swan is a balls-out horror film, abiding by every rule of the genre, building its suspense bit by bit which is finally unleashed in a crazed, final half-hour which comes close to matching the insanity of Kubrick's masterpiece The Shining, perhaps the most brilliant horror film of all times. This is not to say that Black Swan comes near to the heights of Kubrick's horror extravaganza yet it is a rather wonderful piece of cinema, just the right mix of impulsive stupidity, pseudo-psychological suspense and over-the-top sex and gore. There are some genuinely artful moments, especially in the performances by Portman, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey. Aranofsky stages his scene like an old master of the genre, touching on notes as groovy an frightening as not only Polanski but also Argento (!). The similarities seem intended, with many scenes reminiscent of not only the Polanski offerings mentioned above but also Argento's (almost) masterpiece Suspiria.

The plot is barely worth mentioning. Portman plays the main ballerina of the New York City ballet which is about to put on a new interpretation of that musty old classic The Swan Lake. Representing the immaculate, repressed perfectionist, Portman tries to get in touch with her id to be able to play the Black Swan, the dark, sinister half of the Swan Princess. Death and mayhem ensues. Vincent Cassel plays the director of the ballet, a Frenchman who has the honor of spouting some of the worst dialogue in recent memory ("I zee de white swan... but I do not zee de black swan" and the classic: "Go home... and tĂșch yourself").

Aranofsky, not to be outdone, goes for the same subtlety that have marked his earlier efforts

Hershey plays Portman's repressive mother, a former ballerina her who pushes her daughter too far while at the same time lavishing upon her the kind of affection and love that are more irritating than healing. Kunis is the free-spirited dancer whom Portman projects her sexual fantasies and fears upon, the mixture of the two forming a frightful symphony that ultimately results in some bloody competition.

Portman's performance is stellar, a marvel of acting both physical and psychological. But the star of the film is Aronofsky. With Black Swan he proves himself to be a much more interesting and loose filmmaker than anything he has done before even hinted at. Gone are the pretensions and laughable self-seriousness of Requiem, Pi and The Fountain, replaced by the perverted genre-glee of a DePalma or Carpenter. This is not to say that Black Swan is pure silliness. The cinematography, staging and lighting are superb and a joy to watch, the performances excellent and the structure of the film amazingly well done considering how utterly nonsensical and silly the "story" is. Even though the film isn't particularly deep or reflective (you certainly can't think about that last act very hard without it falling apart) it is very well crafted and entertaining, a wonderful horror film that stands among the best offerings of the genre in recent memory.

2 comments:

Reido Bandito said...

White Swan, ches.
Black Swan.....no.

Haukur V said...

I loved it. It needed more gore though, and Mila Kunis' tits. And beaver. And ass. Preferably to Natalie Portman's ass.