Saturday, 29 January 2011

Black Swan: Review, and The Problem of Fantasy

I've only seen Swan Lake on the stage once, which was the Matthew Bourne version at a theatre in Moscow a few years ago. The audience was positively thrumming with jollity; it was a production that highlighted the light touches. Not so Black Swan.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, an ingenue who, still mother-bound, dreams of success (right at the beginning she sees a poster advertising the prima ballerina; Portman conveys her character's suppressed ambition brilliantly with the tiniest of moues.) She dances in a company full of rivalries (overt and hidden). Her director (Vincent Cassell in "I am European" mode) is so sexually manipulative it's a wonder anybody can stand up when he's around. Since he's European, he's obviously a scheming arch-fiend with a Plan. In order to pull out the cash from his uber-rich benefactors, who presumably haven't been coughing up quite so much since his previous darling (Winona Ryder! Who sticks things into her cheeks to prove she's a psychopath!) is almost over the hill, he decides to put on Swan Lake. It's over done, but the public love it.

Poor sweet little Nina! She sleeps with a music box by her bed that her mother winds up for her every night. How is she going to get in touch with her Dark Side so she can play the Black Swan effectively? Darth Vader comes in the form of a loose, free and easy ballerina from California, who takes Nina out to a party and - shock! - gives her drugs! And talks about sex! Nina begins to go doolally. She appears to actually be metamorphosing into a swan, at times, even finding a small black feather growing out of her shoulderblade. She is haunted, too, by a doppellganger, like James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner; or, if Cassell is Archimago, like a wicked Duessa. For this is a film about defined opposites: a chess board, with no grey areas in between.

One ought not, of course, to take Black Swan seriously. It's actually gloriously rendered, almost dripping with luxury and menace, and it's as tightly wound as a ballerina's dancing shoe.

It also brings up the interesting question: why is it only in dancing films that critics mutter, 'oh, she isn't a proper dancer?' Well, no - she's an actor, and actors tend to do things on screen and stage that they are not properly qualified to do in real life. This is something called 'acting', which is 'pretend', and it's something that most of us have done from a very early age. It's not as if watching The Bill people go - 'hang on - he's not a proper policeman - how can he possibly arrest that man?' Or, to take a closer example, pianists. People complain about 'the world portrayed' in films - since when has a film had to be true to life? This is a problem that seems increasingly to be infecting criticism (in general and on the page) - as if people have almost forgotten that a film or a book can be purely fantastical. Black Swan is a gloriously fruity, magic, wedding-cakey confection of tinsel and glitter. It's as real as the Easter Bunny, and just as sick-makingly enjoyable.

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