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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A Bit Demented!

So this week I saw a couple of movies that treated my brain like an egg, dumping it in boiling water until cooked rock solid, only to be thrown to the floor and stomped into tiny pieces.  Yes, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself!

First up, the new and hugely praised Darren Aronofsky film "Black Swan".  It takes the terrestrial story of a ballerina desperate for the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake", a part requiring her to dance both the white and black swan, and turns it into a psychosexual, brooding and horrific descent into a personal Hell.  Aronofsky does clearly have a taste for the theme of a personal descent or journey; in some way or another the idea has been the subject of every film he has made so far.  This could be a complaint about him being "samey", but he does it with such verve every time, each film so vivid and unique an experience on its own, it is impossible to moan.

Upon seeing "Black Swan" the first time through, I found myself rather numb; the film is so vivid, I knew what I had seen was good, but it was hard for me to discern whether I had actually enjoyed it.  Having seen it twice now, I can confirm it is a masterpiece; it moved me far closer to tears on a few occasions the second time through, and is my personal favourite of Aronofsky's work so far.

What is fascinating about the film is that a lot of the ideas are long-held penchants of foreign art house and horror.  Indeed, I take a rather sadistic pleasure, as a fan of the director, from the thought that a lot of people walking into the film, believing they are getting an average thriller, might be rather shocked by the unexpected elements.  Once over the standard setup, the film rapidly takes you on a trip into a world of competition, obsession, self-harm, duality, sexuality, violence, psychosis and body-horror....oh, and overbearing mothers!  We watch the whole thing through the eyes of Nina, played with ridiculous dedication and power by Natalie Portman, whilst the pressure of the role and obsession with being perfect ruins her mind, splits her personality, and drives her to ever-worsening degrees of paranoia.  On the point of performances, I also give praise to the always-overlooked Vincent Cassel, whose acting I recognised, on second viewing, to be far more precise and thoughtful than I first gave credit for.

Anybody familiar with his previous efforts, "Pi" and "Requiem For A Dream", will already know how well Aronofsky can put the broken psyche on screen, and anyone who has seen "The Fountain" and "The Wrestler" will understand how ambitious, daring, and emotional a filmmaker he is.  With "Black Swan" he manages to inject all of those elements into one piece of cinema; it is intense, emotional, dark, upsetting, intimate and beautiful, haunting and bold.  The colour schemes, the staging of scenes, Clint Mansell's original score, the editing and sound; everything is so well-orchestrated, with nearly every scene being essay-worthy, that although not always hugely original in his techniques with this one, Aronofsky has made a film so startling, so hard to forget, it is impossible to not be in complete awe by the time the credits role. (10/10)

On recommendation, I unearthed a film called "Possession".  Now please don't make the mistake of thinking I am referring to any film other than the 1980s "video nasty" by Andrej Zulawski, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani.  In reading about it, I came to understand it is quite a cult classic, and the only English language film by the director.  It is essentially a horror film, which is about, in the director's words when first pitching the idea, "a woman who fucks an octopus".

As a fan of David Lynch (which means I have seen "Eraserhead"), and not being somebody unfamiliar with experimental cinema, I can honestly say this is the most demented film I have ever sat through.  It would be easy to think that means it makes absolutely no sense, is about nothing, and is essentially a host of ridiculous imagery edited together, much like the previously mentioned Lynch piece, but that is not the case. "Possession" is a film that actually appears to be about something, and does apparently follow that through to its logical, if by the point of the finale, completely twisted conclusion!  It is the fact that on some level, you are aware it is following a story, that makes what you are experiencing all the more insane.

The story is pretty much a precursor to the Lars Von Trier film "Antichrist", the main differences being that in the case of "Possession" it is not grief over a lost child that is destroying the couple's relationship, and that "Possession" is the better, if more messed-up piece (seriously!)  Mark returns home in the knowledge that there is something wrong with his wife Anna, and it quickly becomes apparent to him that she is unhappy with their marriage and that she has taken a lover.  Once past this point, the film appears to become a much larger, extremely metaphorical piece, which goes far beyond these two people's relationship.  My impression is that the characters you are watching become political archetypes, dialogue and onscreen events often not making any sort of literal sense, but rather begging you to read between the lines.  This impression is backed up quite firmly, I believe, by the fact that it all unfolds next to the Berlin Wall, the monstrosity often in frame, if not being shot as a central character at points; the fact that Adjani is clearly playing two roles, and that the lover Anna has hidden away for her private sexual encounters is in fact a monster...literally!  Talking of the monster, Carlo Rambaldi, the man responsible for the "Alien" creatures and E.T, is the person behind this, and he still does not like to talk about this film.

There is some complaint that a lot of what happens between these character seems very stagey and false, but that is not how I saw it.  Given my previous impression, I believe that we are being taken up close and personal in this surreal play, often far too close for comfort, as these people scream their conversations hysterically, and we plunge into the madness.  The "stagey" feel comes from the fact it does seem to play out as a theatre production,  but we are put right on the stage with them (again, something Von Trier would later visit in his work).  It is clearly intentional that everything be surreal and strange, adding to how unnerving the whole thing feels, but the performances are undoubtedly superb.  Adjani did, in fact, win an award at Cannes for her performance, despite the film being banned!  You need no explanation as to why, other than watching the acting; to see her give this grotesque, shrill, hyper performance is truly uncomfortable, and her notorious "miscarriage" scene is totally distressing and completely bizarre.  The fact Sam Neill stands his ground through all of this is testament to his prowess and presence.

You walk away from "Possession" completely dumbfounded and unsettled, with an inexplicable desire to watch it again; either that or you will simply despise it.  Whatever happens, and whatever one makes of it, its power to alarm is still top-notch (9/10)


  1. Hey, so glad you loved Black Swan too! I think I might have to lead by your example and go for a second viewing. After reading your comments, I find more a more parallels between this and his previous films, not just technically/cinematogaphically, but also thematically as well. Might need to go for a backlist re-run of all his films sometime this year. I just love Aronofsky, I can't wait to see what he does next (well, it's Wolverine, so maybe I can!)

  2. Hey Sam, cheers for reading. Yes, very much enjoyed it, and agree with the Wolverine comment fully. At first I did worry that perhaps it was a signal that we were going to lose the things about him that we love, what with The Wrestler preceeding and being such a hit, but that was before Black Swan. That film has definitely re-affirmed my belief that he is still very much in touch with how he started, and so I see Wolverine as just something I will probably skip (not remotely interested in anything X-Men related) and look forward to whatever comes next, as I have little doubt it will remain epic

  3. Not to mention, Black Swan offers up enough food for thought to keep me satisfied for some time