The Red Shoes meets Repulsion: Darren Aronofsky´s Black Swan, a riveting piece of psychological ballet horror, wraps you up in its feverish nightmare pace and never lets go. Here´s a filmmaker in such fervent control of his material that your eyes are relentlessly glued to the screen; the familiar storytelling techniques – the is-it-or-isn´t-it-real? vibe, which can easily sink films like this – doesn’t detract, because this isn´t a mystery to be solved, it´s a performance to be experienced.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a timid, insecure young ballet dancer with a repressive mother (Babara Hershey) who charts her every move. When Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the prima ballerina in Nina´s company, abruptly retires, Nina finds herself up for the lead in their next production: Tchaikovsky´s Swan Lake. “Done to death, I know,” says director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), “but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral, and real.”
The delicate, innocent Nina is perfect as the White Swan, but there´s one problem: she can´t hope to pull off the dark seductiveness of the role´s counterpart, the titular Black Swan. Her confidence is dealt another blow by the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a dark-skinned free spirit who dances with abandon and seems just right for the role. Nina is committed to perfection, just like the heroine in The Red Shoes, but she doesn´t seem capable of pulling it off.
To complicate matters, Nina just might be completely insane. She imagines marks on her skin, tearing off the skin around her nail (a direct reference to a similar scene in Repulsion), confrontations with her mother, encounters with Lily. Or does she? We see the world through her eyes, and the line between reality and fantasy is frequently blurred. This is nothing new – the descent into madness and the unreliable narrator are storytelling conventions that have been around for hundreds of years – but Aronofsky subverts the modern convention of separating the audience from the unreliable lead, and successfully drags us into the madness along with Nina.
To this end, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique aids greatly: the always-wavering, handheld work, filled with close-ups and almost entirely focused on and around Portman´s Nina, never gives us a moment to relax. Editing by Andrew Weisblum helps keep up the fever pitch; original music by Clint Mansell is effective, but helplessly overshadowed by Tchaikovsky by the end.
The climatic Swan Lake sequence – in particular, Nina´s transformation into the titular creature – is one of the more memorable moments in recent cinema history; when Portman´s Black Swan first looks into the camera, she sends shivers down your spine.
Portman´s performance as Nina is revelatory – it´s easily the most accomplished thing she´s done. The actress so effortlessly convinces us of her character´s insecurities and inabilities – there´s no way, we think, she could really pull off the Black Swan – that when she actually does make the transformation, we´re as in awe as the audience in the film. Portman has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, which she should, by all rights, win.
The film has also scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Editing, and Cinematography; Picture and Director have likely already been decided (The King´s Speech/The Social Network), and Editing and Cinematography are competitive categories. But in a year of many great films, Black Swan might be my favorite.
London Boulevard was roundly trashed by critics when it opened in the UK late last year, with many picking apart the inauthentic nature of a British gangster movie directed by an American (William Monahan, who won a Screenplay Oscar for his work on The Departed) and starring an Irishman (Colin Farrell). I recall a similar chilly-cool reception for Martin McDonough´s In Bruges (which also starred Farrell) when it initially bowed in the UK; that film turned out to be one of my favorites from the past decade.
And here we are again: London Boulevard is a striking, pulpy pop-culture amalgamation of British gangster movie clichés, and I loved every minute of it. The British gangster film had been popularized by 80s classics like John Mackenzie´s The Long Good Friday and Neil Jordan´s Mona Lisa, more recently satirized by films like Sexy Beast and In Bruges, and parodied by Snatch and other Guy Ritchie-inspired fare. In London Boulevard, Monahan turns the genre on its head, Tarantino-style: it´s a self-aware but entirely loving embrace of genre conventions that fearlessly throws itself into the fire.
Mitchell (Farrell) has just been released from prison; his first stop on the way back is a self storage lot, where he picks up a wad of cash, a switchblade, and a nostalgic photograph. A host of lowlifes congregate at a bar to welcome Mitch back to society, and while he doesn´t want to go back to jail, he´s quickly flung back into his hoodlum ways; he decks a man misusing his sister Briony (Anna Friel), and accepts a place to stay and “work” from incompetent friend Billy (Ben Chaplin), knowing full well what may come out of it.
But Mitch meets a girl (Ophelia Lovibond) who offers him a ray of hope at getting out of this existence; she sends him to a friend who may have legitimate work for him. Her friend is Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a famous model and actress whose face adorns billboards and magazines around London; she´s also become a Howard Hughes-like recluse who lives with a pothead actor Jordan (David Thewlis) and has paparazzi permanently staked outside her mansion. She could use the kind of help a tough like Mitch can provide.
There´s also a host of colorful supporting characters and subplots, including: the shit-eating DI Bailey (Eddie Marsan), who bleeds Mitch for cash; father-figure vagrant Joe (Alan Williams), who is attacked by hoodie thugs and hospitalized; a kind doctor (Sanjeev Bhaskar) who has a thing for Mitch´s sister; and an array of disreputable gangster types. The most powerful of them all is the stark-raving mad Gant (Ray Winstone), who wants to recruit Mitch into his fold and won´t take ‘no´ for an answer.
London Boulevard doesn´t work in conventional ways; there´s too much story here and too little time (approx. 100 minutes) to present it all as a cohesive or tightly-crafted piece. Instead, writer/director Monahan frames the material (based on the novel by the same name by Ken Bruen) as a series of vignettes, where we often wonder about, but don´t get to see, what happens in-between some of the key scenes. The director sacrifices some suspense and story tension and this way, but when the individual vignettes work as well as they do here, I´m not complaining.
Part of that is due to the manic pop nature of the film: Monahan starts with the British ganster film and throws everything from neo-noir (Chris Menges´ cinematography) to Spaghetti Western (the titles) and irreverent humor (Thewlis´ character) into the mix. There´s also the underlying Sunset Boulevard (reclusive actress) comparison referenced by the title, though it´s less pronounced than one might imagine. Like a Tarantino movie, part of the fun of watching London Boulevard is getting that rush of all the hundreds of films that have directly informed it.
Farrell and Knightley are fine as the leads, but the rest of the cast is even better: Marsan, Chaplin, Thewlis, and other colorful faces provide memorable support. Best of all is Winstone, truly frightening as Gant – he commands the screen whenever he´s around, and lingers in memory when he isn´t; his performance recalls Ben Kingsley´s in Sexy Beast.
The soundtrack is magnificent – it makes the film. A twangy, Morricone-influenced original score by Sergio Pizzorno heightens the Spaghetti Western vibe. Additionally, an extremely well-chosen array of 60s hits adds to the delusional pop culture atmosphere, and includes work by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds, whose Heart Full of Soul serves as London Boulevard´s anthem.
Please ignore the below trailer, which makes the film out to be some kind of goofy Guy Ritchie farce – the movie is far darker and more original than it implies:
Also opening: Fimfárum 3 (showtimes), the third in the animated series based on Jan Werich´s stories. Screening in Czech (and 3D).