February 5th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: After the deluge, build new dams!

NATIONAL SECURITY: Heightened terror threat likely in 2011

EDITORIAL: Dealing with the China challenge

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Can Julia Gillard re-invent herself?

TASMANIA: New premier is an Emily's List radical feminist

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Rann Labor Government beset by factional brawls

CLIMATE CHANGE: Floods caused by global warming: Bob Brown

ENVIRONMENTALISM: Greenpeace co-founder has second thoughts

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Chinese president goes to Washington

UNITED STATES: Same-sex marriage: who says nothing will change?

FEMINISM: Australia Post honours four radical feminists

OPINION: Mother-child bond diagnosed as a mental disturbance

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: C.S. Lewis and False Apology Syndrome

CINEMA: A dark and twisted psychological thriller - Black Swan (rated R)


BOOK REVIEW: THE LAST ENGLISHMAN: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, by Roland Chambers

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A dark and twisted psychological thriller - Black Swan (rated R)

by Siobhan Reeves (reviewer)

News Weekly, February 5, 2011
Black Swan (rated R), starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey, and directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Nina (Black Swan): "I just want to be perfect."

George Orwell: "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection."

Black Swan is one of three movies which have created a pre-Oscar awards buzz recently, the other two being The Social Network and The King's Speech.

The film premiered as opening film for the Venice International Film Festival in September and since then has won over 40 film awards, including three awards each at the New York Film Critics' Awards and the Oklahoma Film Critics' Awards, a record 12 Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for lead actress Natalie Portman.

The film is undoubtedly a masterpiece of cinematography coupled with exceptional acting. However, of more particular significance is the film's treatment of warped obsessive perfectionism.

Black Swan is a psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). The main character, Nina (Portman) is given the part of the Swan Queen in a prestigious ballet company's new production of Tchaichovsky's Swan Lake.

The company's artistic director, Thomas (Cassel), recognises her clear potential to dance the White Swan, but is doubtful of her suitability to dance the sinister sensual Black Swan. He ruthlessly pushes her and, to an extent, emotionally abuses her in order to force her into the character of the Black Swan, while her mother (Hershey), a thwarted ballet-dancer herself, controls her daughter's life in a disturbingly infantile fashion.

Meanwhile, a new vibrant dancer Lily (Kunis) is Nina's new competitor to dance the Swan Queen and becomes the subject of Nina's increasingly explicit hallucinations. The film is not pleasant. It is dark, twisted, and graphic.

Portman's portrayal of Nina has been crucial to the success of the Black Swan. She is hauntingly convincing as the fragile, emancipated, talented dancer who is rapidly losing her sanity.

The film masterfully juxtaposes the controlled streamlined world of classical ballet with the psychotic mania of severe mental illness. Nina is a beautiful ballet dancer. Her body is finely trained to perform each arabesque with absolute accuracy. Yet all the while her mind descends into horrific chaos as she loses all control over her psyche.

Rapidly she starts experiencing shocking hallucinations and, in a Hitchcockesque manner, it is not made clear to the audience how much of the film is in fact reality or in Portman's mind. The mental illness is essential to the film, and it is neither caricatured nor belittled.

Black Swan is in many ways an exploration of the ultimate destruction of the human soul due to an inordinate obsession to be "perfect".

Portman commented in an interview that the movie is "in so many ways an exploration of an artist's ego and that narcissistic sort of attraction to yourself and also repulsion with yourself". The more Nina strives to be perfect, the more she is at the same time attracted to herself and repulsed.

Her obsession with perfection is made very obvious through her excessive use of mirrors. Even in her home she is found in front of a large three-sided mirror, and indeed for much of the film she is reflected in bathroom mirrors, dressing-room mirrors, mirrors throughout the ballet school, even her reflection on the subway.

A key turning point in the severity of her hallucinations is when her reflection takes on a life of its own.

As Orwell notes, the obsessive seeking of perfection dehumanises a person. Nina is obsessed with perfecting herself through both her body and her technique in order to perfect her art.

Arianna Huffington (née Stassinopoulos) , a Greek-American journalist and politician, once made the following observation. She said: "Our current obsession with creativity is the result of our continued striving for immortality in an era when most people no longer believe in an after-life."

In the film's tragic final scene, Nina believes that she has achieved immortality because she has perfected the Swan Queen, her creation. Yet in reality her "immortality" is cuttingly shallow.

There are many other important aspects to this complex film: the relationship between mother and daughter, the relationship between director and student, the character of the rejected ballerina (Wynona Ryder), the relationship between Nina and Lily, the relationship between Swan Lake and Nina's emotional torture.

The film also boasts a compelling musical score by Clint Mansell, based on Tchaikovsky's ballet, and the ballet scenes have been widely acclaimed as masterfully executed and filmed.

It is certainly not a film that will appeal to everyone, nor is it one that can be forgotten lightly. But there is no doubt that this film will be recognised as a classic among psychological thrillers.

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