More thoughts on Black Swan.

23Jan11

Little White Lies magazine has a cool little tradition of reviewing films first on the basis of initial reaction, and then in retrospect. If I had the time I’d adopt a similar policy on this blog, but as it is such special treatment will have to be distributed on the basis of a combination of merit, and the extent to which feelings towards a film adapt over time. I might be judged foolish, then, to revisit Black Swan so soon, but take this as testament to the impact the film has had upon me in the space of a mere two days. Rarely has it left my mind since I left the cinema on Friday night.

It seems that Aronofsky’s latest effort has created a significant divide in opinion. Few dispute the fact it’s a damn fine film; the question is rather whether it’s an outrageously magnificent masterpiece or a film that will linger before being forgotten. I’m leaning towards the former camp, but I understand entirely the sentiments resisting the temptation to do so, insisting time will show us to be swept up in the moment.

I said in my review it’s an easy film to appreciate, and I stand by that. It sits comfortably as the newest member of a large club of films that, mixing violence with sexual undertones and a healthy dose of horror and psychological fragility, attempt to induce a range of strong emotions: from fear to intrigue and shock to awe. Think of the likes of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Kronenberg, and you’ll start to understand who Aronofsky wants his name to be associated with: the very best cinematic portrayers of the dark side of humanity.

The film I instinctively drew parallels with was The Shining: again, a film that makes very obvious its virtues. Even untrained eyes (and ears) rarely fail to spot the masterful use of music and manipulation of perspective: to what extent do we get glimpses of reality, and how much time do we spend in Jack Torrance’s mind? The same questions arise here regarding the crazier scenes involving Nina. Aronofsky’s very keen to play with us and test the limits of subjectivity, almost to the extent that we’re encouraged to forget about the logic of the film and pretend we are in fact destined to see things as she does.

This, I think, is the source of disenchantment with Black Swan: there seems to be a strong human tendency, especially cultivated in learned film critics, to dislike and resist being asked to accept illusions in such a way. We don’t like to think we’re powerless at the hands of a director completely in control of our feelings who is making us feel as perplexed as his poor main character is.

And yet I remain convinced Aronofsky pulls off this surreal, hypnotic experience possibly better than anyone ever has. It’s easy to look back and pretend the moment doesn’t entrance you. But I bet anything as soon as one reenters the cinema, or indeed watches Black Swan for the first time, you’ll forget as easily as anyone that you’re about to temporarily become members of a Platonic cave.

And that, surely, is one of the greatest things a film can achieve. Awards season is arriving, and I’ll be dishing out definitive and divisive praise myself once I have finally seen both The King’s Speech and True Grit. I’m convinced, however, that Black Swan could easily be the film that stands out alone from 2010 when we look back in a decade. Its minimal minor flaws are evident – Vincent, Nina’s teacher, is upon reflection a rather stale, block character to say the least. But the evidence available to the cynic dries up just about there. This could be our generation’s The Shining.

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