Imagine if “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” took place entirely in the principal characters head? Darren Aranofsky’s latest psycho-melodrama asks just that, whilst adding a side order of David Cronenberg style body horror (and there is a lot) – I went into the cinema expecting to see a number of bloody feet injuries but was quite unprepared for the number of horrific hand injuries that occur in the film. This isn’t quite the film I expected but is all the better for it (and it is superb), held together by a performance from Natalie Portman that can only be described as brave.
It’s the sort of film that requires total commitment from all involved in order to work – if the foot was taken off the pedal at any stage then you’ll have chance to realise just how nutty it all is (and there are squirrels lining up outside of cinemas for this) – but that commitment is there from everyone to see. Is it a film about the dangers of the artistic process? Yes, but then we are shown little of the process of getting to this point. Is it about sexual awakening? Yes, but then we’re not sure how much of what we are told is a lie. Is it possibly all a dream after the opening ten minutes? Quite possible, but then it’s hard to figure out what is real and what isn’t after the half way point. Part of the fun of Black Swan is attempting to decipher it afterwards.
Portman is superb, is she mad to begin with or being driven mad by her art? She manages to keep you guessing throughout – the trick is just to focus on the immediate scene rather than trying to figure out the whole until the end (although multiple options remain available for the viewer). In many ways it’s multiple performances (and I’m convinced there are occasions when the two leads swap roles for certain shots) and one that relies more on body language than facial expressions to deliver – Portman is often seen over the shoulder (Aranofsky expands on the hand held camera work that characterised The Wrestler) with an oblique reflection of her the only indication of her movement. For a film about the beauty of movement it’s during the moments of stillness that we actually learn the most about her character.
Reflections – in keeping with the (possible) themes of the film barely a shot doesn’t have a reflection or other form of false image within it (which must have been a nightmare for the camera team) as a means of furthering the sense of disconnect. Again it’s a cliché with this subject but it’s embraced with such gusto that you cannot help but admire the sheer balls of the director for attacking them whole heartedly. Elsewhere the aforementioned body-horror gets a regular outing, with the majority of injuries self inflicted and coming so out of the blue that the shock value is increased.
Aranofsky remains a director that you cannot get your head around, each film tackling another subject (although always linked to obsession in some manner) in as demented a fashion as possible. His fallout with the studio system following “The Fountain” has led to him producing a series of Marmite films – once again the audience was split afterwards as to whether they’d just seen a masterpiece or the biggest piece of hokum ever (I’m firmly in the former camp). Where he goes following this remains a mystery – the studios are keen for him to return to the fold and the rumours of remake of Robocop remain (what the hell would that be like?), but for now he’s delivered another film that is both clichéd and defies explanation – but does require the ability to let your head cool down afterwards.
Highly recommended – but don’t blame me if you hate it.