Black Swan begins in a dream and dawns slowly into nightmare. From its opening moments, you know that Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller is going to do something special. We watch the close-up shot of a ballerina en pointe, tip-toeing across an illumined stage. Arms flap, the face of Natalie Portman appears and then she is joined in duet with a dark-plumed devil. As the camera swirls around them, you can hear the flutter of feathers, her gasps and groans as they dance. You sense something more than just beauty – you can grasp the viscerality of the dance. Portman's Nina Sayers awakens from her dream, but the touch and tone of that sequence lingers with you.
Aronofsky, you see, is not known for the gentle caress. His films are usually all hard attack, cut with razor-sharp editing. In The Wrestler, we saw a settling down that suggested a maturing of his talents. Now, Black Swan is the culmination of them. The film is demented and disturbing, a psycho-melodrama and an evil twin to Powell and Pressburger's classic ballet film The Red Shoes.
Aronofsky's fixations abound: we have a central character propelled by intense compulsion. But whereas in Pi, his debut film, he used a dentist's drill to deepen the mental discontent, here, he delivers that same intensity with the silken touch of a master.
The role of Nina Sayers is career-defining stuff for Portman. She is the doll-faced dancer on the wings of a New York ballet company. And just like Moira Shearer's Vicky from The Red Shoes, she is cast in the leading role of a ballet production. The show is Swan Lake and the director is Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), a vain bully who swans around with a sweater tied over his shoulders. She is ideal for the white swan, he tells her, because she is girlish, virginal and excessively disciplined. She still lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), a pinched ex-dancer who exudes Hitchcockian control over her. But Nina is not cut out for the dual role of the black swan, Thomas tells her, for it is sensual and free-spirited and she is not. Thomas – director, antagonist, goader – senses she needs to be seduced.
Portman's face is all virgin ingénue. With her hair stretched tight, her features flicker with the anxieties of a girl thrust into the adult world. She shrivels when Thomas points out the style of Lily (Mila Kunis), a rival dancer who is all sex and sass. And when Lily takes her out on the town to loosen her up, Nina shrinks from men. The next day, she wakes up late for rehearsals and finds Lily rehearsing her part. Is Lily being set up for the role of nemesis? Or has Nina been watching too much of All About Eve? And there are stranger things going on. Who is that sinister person Nina sees who looks exactly like herself? Aronofsky locks the camera so tight to Nina's head, you lose sense of what is going on around her. Even a reflection in the window of an underground train becomes unsettling.
This sense of unease deepens and you start to lose grip on what is real. The film inhabits that erotic, tunnelling sensation of a Lynchian nightmare: Nina is waking up with mysterious scratches on her back and then her fingers start to bleed. Are these the psychological symbols for the dancer's rigorous masochism? Or growing psychosis? Her feet start to web. And then there is the issue of tiny black feathers that pierce through her back's skin.
Black Swan teases with Freudian allegory, for if Nina is to become the black swan, she must shed the white childhood that holds her back. Thomas, giving up his advances after she bites him on the lip, suggests instead she should try masturbating. Nina tosses and turns with guilt. But when she finally gets around to it, she discovers her mother is asleep in her bedroom chair. Hitchcock would have loved that.
Portman is a revelation. She convinces entirely as a ballerina. And her face, so sensuous, so vulnerable, is a trusted guide to the furies in her soul. The film is one of the most profound studies of artistic immersion I've seen. There is a flash of Bergman's Persona as she disintegrates and reintegrates for the role of the swan queen. And it is breathtaking how Aronofsky maintains the film's sliding reality. His tonal shifts are a marvel: he can pirouette from a slow-motion ballerina toe turning amidst the creaking of a wooden floorboard into hallucinatory hysterics; from camerawork that graces like an Ophulsian waltz to pressing, Polanski-like paranoia. The film is a modern classic.
In Morning Glory, a spiky romcom from Notting Hill director Roger Michell, a young star shines and an old star still bites. Rachel McAdams' Becky Fuller is a TV producer for a national network show called Daybreak. The film gives her two things to do: save the dying programme and find herself a man. The latter is more difficult because she's a flustered, babbling, mobile phone-addicted workaholic (with a big heart); though this makes it easier for her to succeed in the former.
McAdams, radiating something close to nuclear charm, is mining a young Diane Keaton. She's also acting alongside an old Diane Keaton who, as the morning show anchor, is a parody of herself.
Then Harrison Ford enters the picture, literally, with his fist and proceeds to bash everyone about. He's a venerable, high-brow TV journalist (he insists on inserting the word 'abrogated' into the teleprompter), and he grumps and growls when Becky forces him by contract to co-host the tabloid-style morning show. (He refuses to read the word 'fluffy').
The structure of the studio romcom is plain as day – the hackneyed story, the mandatory love interest (Patrick Wilson) developed barely as a two-dimensional formality. But Michell massages its parameters until we have something more pliable. The film expands with energy and loveable characters. McAdams, no prissy cookie-cutter, rolls her sleeves up to her dainty elbows and gets stuck in. The film gets its fighting screwball energies by pitting her against Ford. The old dragon snorts and sneers and stamps and steamrolls and is hilarious. But Becky has the smarts and the unflagging sweetness to tame him.
Harrison Ford's grouch wouldn't last 30 seconds in NEDS, Peter Mullan's unflinching coming-of-age drama. Ford would sneer over his glasses at the film's delinquent kids, fix his tie and then run for his life. Mullan, working from the Ken Loach handbook, picks up the indignation in his last film The Magdalene Sisters and pours it into 1970s Glasgow. The story recounts, in fading Kodak-style colour, the childhood of John McGill (played by Conor McCarron), a grade-A student who has aspirations of going to university. But despite the boy's best intentions, the film gradually empties him out, setting intimidation, violence and class resentment to work on him until he's as hopeless as the rest of them. Give me the boy of 10, Mullan seems to say, and I'll show you the sociopathic, glue-sniffing, knife-wielding delinquent of a man.
Mullan plays the role of John's alcoholic father and you can smell the Tennents Super Strong on his breath. The world is evoked with the knowledge of the insider: there is affection for characters who could have been lifted straight off the street and a hatred of poverty's social confines. Mullan maintains the film's hard gaze, even if it begins to slip away from him with an ill-chosen hallucination with Jesus and a Travis Bickle-style rampage. You come away from it humbled.
You come away from The Dilemma, meanwhile, feeling swindled. This myopic marital comedy stars Vince Vaughn as a burly businessman who discovers that his best buddy's wife (Kevin James and Winona Ryder) is having an affair. Does he confront her? Does he tell his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) who is her best friend? Or does he fess up to his pal and jeopardise their motor business? The comedy is plodding (Vaughn falls into poison ivy!). The film's energy soporific (I fell asleep!). And its direction? Well, that credit goes to Ron Howard, which just goes to show that anything can be done in between the wiping of one's backside and the flushing of the toilet.
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