Tuesday 1 February 2011

The Swan Kiss Goodnight

Black Swan 2011 US
Directed by
Darren Aranofsky
Playing at
UK cinemas now.

Warning: There are, kind of, spoilers in here for the people who really can’t figure out how this movie will end after being given the story ten minutes into this film.

I’ve been putting off writing this movie up because, for one thing, I know my take on it will probably be quite unpopular and sometimes people take bad reviews as a personal insult against their favourite movies (something I discovered from comments left on this blog in the past ;-). But as someone pointed out to me on twitter... I have to be honest... so here I am and the part of this process which really upsets me, given my reaction to Black Swan, is that I’m actually, or have always considered myself to be, a big supporter of Darren Aranofsky’s work and three of his last four movies are always good for multiple and regular viewings (if I could just get rid of this DVD backlog quicker I’d probably be watching them now instead of writing this!).

I remember when Pi hit the cinemas towards the end of the 90s... it was just an amazing film and seemed to me to be an absolute masterpiece... a conclusion from which I’ve not strayed. I even loved the comic book spin-off from it, The Book Of Ants.

Then came Requiem For A Dream, which I saw premiered at the London Film Festival, and it had a similar, mind blowing effect on me. Memories of leaving the auditorium (a fair few people had already walked out halfway through from the sheer intensity of it) and being completely and totally depressed by it... just totally blew me away. And Clint Mansell’s amazing score... straight away I knew it was going to be one of those classic pieces of music that captures the attention of the world in much the same way as The James Bond Theme or The Pink Panther theme or the two-note repeat structure of Johnny William’s Jaws did. It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to prove me right on that one as the main theme from Requiem For A Dream has got to be one of the most over-used pieces of music on modern movie trailers since the films release... they even recorded a more appropriately re-orchestrated version of it to play out on the trailer to Peter Jackson’s less than stellar but hugely popular movie The Two Towers (aka Lord of the Rings Part 2). Believe me... the long wait between the November London Film Festival and the movie and score’s January release at the cinema and on CD shelves respectively was a long one for me.

Then came The Fountain and, although at first I was unsure of it as it wasn’t as intense or as frenetically paced a film as his previous two masterworks, it proved to have a deeply haunting and emotional intensity as one of the incarnations of the character played by Hugh Jackman battles to try to find a cure for his wifes terminal cancer. A very sad film which, like the two before it, bears up to multiple viewings.

And then there was The Wrestler... and it kind of felt a little bit like Aranofsky had “sold out to the man” and decided not to pursue his quirky and intense little world anymore. Don’t get me wrong... fine film, hard edged with fine performances and a solid, emotional heart (like all his films before) but it was also a little bit run-of-the-mill for Aranofsky, I thought. Not something I would ever bother to watch again so I could get dazzled by his marvellous technique.

And that’s where I am with Black Swan in a way... but maybe it’s not quite as good a film as even The Wrestler for me in that it lacks that emotional heartbeat that keeps all the previous films alive and vital.

I keep wondering if all the pre-release hype about Black Swan actually ramped up my expectations for it... but I don’t think that’s the case as I really didn’t know much of anything about it until I was siting there in the audience other than it was an “intense” drama about ballet dancers who turn into beasts... or some such.

And then there was the music...

Ever since the heady days of Pi and Requiem For A Dream I’ve been keeping an eye out for Clint Mansell’s scores because, for an ex-pop band member, he has done some truly amazing pieces of work. I may not have great memories of the Clive Cussler adaptation Sahara, for example, but Mansell’s score for it is amazing... it’s the greatest James Bond soundtrack ever written for a non-Bond film! Seriously... if David Arnold was ever going to retire from the Bond franchise then just a few minutes listening to Mansell’s Sahara should convince you that he should get the job next. Quite amazing.

So as soon as the physical CD of Mansell’s score for Black Swan hit the shops over here in the UK, about a week before the release of the movie, I rushed out to buy it and take a listen... that’s when I knew there might be something seriously wrong with this movie. What I got on the soundtrack CD was basically warmed up Swan Lake with the odd and not nearly frequent enough dissonance thrown over the top. My first reaction to this was... “Oh... so Clint Mansell likes James Horner’s score to Gorky Park too” because, seriously, this whole score is just like a long but not nearly as intense version of Horner’s Main Title music to that film. I just couldn’t believe it... and it seemed so pleasant in contrast to Horner’s more jarringly effective acoustic assault. In fact, given that Black Swan has only been on release over here for a couple of weeks, I find it more than suspect that a very limited edition of Horner’s Gorky Park has just been remastered and rereleased to a rabid fan base. Hmmm... wonder what prompted that then? Is it because both composers are doing “fucked up Tchaikovsky” as their modus operandi?

So yeah... was treading a little cautiously when I went to the cinema for Black Swan, but still really looking forward to it... until the minutes wore on and I found that... far from being the kind of intense hybrid of Dario Argento’s movies Suspiria and The Stendhal Syndrome that I’d been expecting (well it kinda was story-wise... just not nearly as intense), this reminded me of the old Fame TV show more than anything... but at least on Fame you felt there was more pain and suffering and intensity going on (and believe me, there’s nothing more intensely scary as seeing Leroy wear a leotard... avast!).

I don’t know really what the problem with this movie was for me, because the actors were all top notch talent and all gave a really good performance... I think I have to lay the blame at Aranofsky’s door on this, much to my regret (please... somebody tell me the producers took the film away from him and recut it). In the end, though, I just didn’t care really what happened to any of the characters, there were no real surprises in the movie that you don’t see coming a mile off and, ultimately... it just felt kinda... to abscond with a young persons phrase... well... meh!

And, of course, by having a summary of the story of Swan Lake at the start of the movie (a story I didn’t know until now)... well it kinda gives away the end of the movie and takes away what might have been a final surprise... if one had been snoozing through half the movie. We know the main female protagonist is going to die at the end of the ballet as the swan does in the ballet itself. And no amount of schizophrenic imagery on the part of Natalie Portman’s protagonist and half-hearted attempts to fool us with her distorted perception of events is going to fool us by this point.

Even the fairly well done and sparingly used swan transformation sequences seem a little lacking in energy and all the way through I kept thinking to myself... “Golly! If I didn’t know this was an Aranofsky film I would have never had pegged it to him.” It just seemed so pedestrian you see?

My one positive note on the whole proceedings, to a degree, was the fact that Clint Mansell’s score, in the context of the movie, seemed really appropriate to the on screen action... that is to say... a less than challenging score for a less than challenging film.

And I really wish I hadn’t had such a bad time at the cinema with this movie but there you have it. This will be the second Darren Aranofsky movie that I will fail to buy on DVD I’m afraid.


  1. Thanks for the honest portrayal of this flick. I think once the it's--a-serious-movie juggernaut revs up, it's hard to get reviews that don't kowtow to someone's idea of what a serious movie is. It's interesting that you caught the idea that something was amiss from your first hearing of the score--filmmakers should take note!

  2. Yeah... well I'm always the last person to blame the composer. Modern score composers have the most compressed and toughest deadlines to manage these days... they're always the first casualty too if the studio gets the idea the movie is so bad they need to change something. It's easier and cheaper to compose and record a new score than it is to get everyone back for re-shoots.

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  4. Hey! We didn't get that poster here. Like it a lot. Saw film twice. Laughed at it the first time. Went along with it he second time and both times I didn't like the "Swan Lake" plot given away ultimately telling us the ending to their own movie. (I didn't know the "Swan Lake" plot going into the film.)

  5. Yeah, I don;t think we had that poster either. There were some really cool ones doing the rounds on the INternet long before the film came out. But no matter how good the poster is...