Home of the Black Swan

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in Dawlish, famous for being where Seth Johnson, arguably the fiscal straw that broke the camel’s back of Leeds United in the early 00s, grew up, and for having Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway run through it, and for meaning “Devil’s Water” (it’s not actually famous for this, but it is what Dawlish means), and not a lot else. Aside, possibly, from being “the home of the Black Swan”, after some philanthropic naturalist brought a colony of them here from Western Australia hundreds of years ago. For the last 40 years, the Black Swan has been the town’s emblem.

As if that preamble wasn’t obvious enough, we went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan o Thursday night. It was good; possibly very good indeed. Natalie Portman’s performance as a disturbed, repressed, cracking-under-the-pressure prima ballerina is absolutely convincing. Winona Ryder’s casting as the ousted, fading former star is a stroke of meta-genius. The ballet sequences are shot cleverly and stylishly. The special effects are low-key and natural and all the more effective for it. Set design and clever visual motifs – like every scene bar one featuring a mirror or other reflective object (admittedly not hard to achieve in a film set largely in a ballet studio) – are recognisable but not obtrusive (unlike the edit-frenzy of Aronofsky’s former film, Requiem For A Dream). There are moments of heightened tension and fear that match with almost anything I’ve seen for expressing psychological and physical distress.

But, bar one or maybe two moments when I was physically jolted in my seat, I didn’t find it shocking, which I almost found a little disappointing given that a lamentation of people we know (is that the correct term for a group of swans? A ‘lamentation’?) had described it as shocking, as uncomfortable viewing. Having run a film library I’m probably spoilt for “uncomfortable viewing” (Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible; Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy Of Hell; Em and I still have a vague desire to watch Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist); Black Swan didn’t seem to me to be all that shocking. But then again, we are in February; Black Swan is Oscar-fodder and not confrontationally sexual and violent European arthouse.

I tweeted as much: that we had enjoyed Black Swan but couldn’t understand why people were finding it as shocking as they had expressed to us. Matos replied, and succinctly nailed it: “Its charge comes from its craft.”

Aronofsky, through Cassell, makes the film’s narrative explicit early on, when the ballet director spells out the plot of Swan Lake: beautiful girl turns into a swan, needs love to escape the spell, cannot find love, experiences painful duality of desire, kills herself, and in death finds release. The procession from there to Portman’s blissful, perfect denouement was inexorable; the film’s quality is in how it gets there. Aronofsky’s never been a narrative trickster, an inventive storywriter. He tells stories we already know, fills them with images, techniques, ideas and emotions that make them stand out (I’m making him sound better than I think he is: I’m a fan, not a stan). It’s a standard American horror trope, for instance, that if a girl experiences any kind of sexual awakening then she must die before the end of the film. What does that say about our attitude to female liberation?

So girl-on-girl cunnilingus is not shocking (we watched The Girl Who Played With Fire earlier in the week, which does the same thing but with an actually sensual, sexual edge rather than cold, chemical detachment) unless your attitude towards homosexuality is prehistoric. A girl masturbating (and not at all graphically) is equally not shocking unless your attitude towards women is prehistoric (go back and watch Pleasantville again). In fact, and I’ve seen no one else mention this, one of my biggest pleasures watching Black Swan was the flash of humour when Portman was almost caught masturbating by her (sleeping) mother.

Is Black Swan a horror film? Almost. But you don’t win Oscars with outright genre-films; I think it may have been better if it had been an outright horror film. I think Aronofsky could become as good as he wants to be, as he thinks he is, if he lightened up a touchand pursued this aspect of his work. The palpable fear when Portman’s character was alone in the darkened theatre was more effective than the guilt/lust/jealousy of her finding Cassell and Lilly at it behind the stage curtain.

Perhaps the biggest tension, though, was the one within me as I watched Black Swan; the tension of knowing that the feathering of her skin, the webbing of her toes, the killing of her rival, the speaking mouths of her mother’s portraits, were all in her mind, and my desire for the film to launch itself fully into magical realism, for Portman to actually turn into a black swan onstage, for it not to be in her mind, and for the film to embrace ludicrousness and shun tastefulness fully. But that doesn’t win Oscars.

In a first for this blog, today’s photo is not by me, but rather by Tom Ledger, because, amazingly, I’ve not got any in my Flickr archive of black swans – a side-effect of having bought our DSLR after we moved from Dawlish to
Exeter.

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3 responses to “Home of the Black Swan

  1. Great movies don’t need Oscars. And crappy movies aren’t helped other than temporarily buy getting awarded. Here are a few films that weren’t awarded any Oscars: A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Bladerunner, The Sixth Sense and Donnie Darko.

    I think The King’s Speech will be Best Film, the jury loves characters with disabilities, but who cares? Time will prove them wrong as so many times before. Black Swan has lasting power.

  2. The Sixth Sense and Donnie Darko are a bit shit though, aren’t they?

    I think Matos’ line and Nick’s explication of it nails what I liked about this one very neatly, although I have to think more about how/whether it applies to Aronofsky’s The Fountain (one of my very favourite films, and one everyone else seems to hate). My favourite parts of Black Swan were the way rustling wings are near-constantly mixed into the background noise of crowd scenes, and the appearance of the Black Swan in the flashcut dancing-in-a-club scene.

  3. Nonsense, those are great movies. And they outrank the big Oscar winners of their years on IMDB, as well as The Fountain. But you’re clearly more artsy than I am. Aesthetics alone doesn’t do it for me.

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