Friday, 4 February 2011

Black Swan, Blue Valentine and Faithless at the O2

After a v extended winter break, the brew is back...thought I'd offer a longer post than usual to make up for my absence.

There seems to be a heap of good movies doing the rounds in these pre Oscar days. I took in a couple this week, Black Swan and Blue Valentine, of which the former made the greater impact on me. When I was a kid, I used to adore books about ballet. I gave the art itself a try but quickly gave it up when I realised the teacher was never going to let me be Thumbelina. In one of my favourite ballet stories, the heroine gets her big break dancing the Odette/Odile (White Swan/Black Swan) role in Swan Lake. But while the story made much of the technical difficulties of dancing the Black Swan role, particularly the exacting 32 fouettes across the stage during the seduction of the Prince, the book did not refer to the danger to the dancer's mental health.

Nina (Natalie Portman), the protagonist of the film, is desperate for the role of Odette/Odile, in her New York based company's production of Swan Lake. But at the start of the film, while she is the archetypal White Swan (pure, demure, and technically perfect) she lacks the cruel power and brilliance necessary for the Black Swan. The film follows her as she develops into the perfect Odette/Odile. It's also the story of her breakdown, as she leaves behind her state of arrested development, and becomes a woman.

Nina is pulled between the demands of her mother, who wants to keep her as a little girl, and those of the ballet company's director, who wants her to let go, unleash her sexuality, both for his benefit and the role of the Black Swan. The film wonderfully depicts the two worlds that Nina inhabits, the claustrophobic apartment with her suffocating mother, the girlish colours of pink and white adorn Nina's room, and many of her clothes. Whilst her Svengali, Thomas, has a black and white office, and his appartment is also black and white, with an inkblot painting evocative of a Rorshach test prominently displayed on the walls. The camera is often in close up, on Nina's face, and we see increasingly fragmented images of her in reflections in mirrors etc. In the final performance scenes, the close up dizzying whirl of the camera draws us into Nina's disintegrating state of mind.

I used to think of ballet as an ethereal, floaty kind of art form, but when I saw Swan Lake at Covent Garden about a year ago, I realised what a physical experience it really is. We were up in the gods, and could hear the thud of the dancers' feet as they landed on the stage, and the rustling movements of their bodies as they imitated swans. This film is very true to that, we see the blood, sweat and tears that dance requires. We also see the gritty everyday reality of a dancer's life, sewing ballet ribbons on shoes, and worrying about weight.

Interestingly, it is the desire/envy relationships she has with two other dancers in the company the push Nina into the state where she can become the Black Swan, and that state is related directly to her sexuality. Several times in the movie we see her attempt to reach a sexual climax, only to fail at the last moment (once memorably to discover her mother had come into her bedroom...). But is through letting go, during an evening with one of those other dancers, that Nina finally manages to have her orgasm. It's interesting that it seems to be this experience that gives her the power to be the wicked and seductive Odile, and also propels her into the final stage of her meltdown. I wonder what that says about women's sexuality?

Comparisons between this film and Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes are inevitable, if only because there aren't that many films about dancers having mental breakdowns brought about by their absorption in their art. But although it's a close call, I still prefer The Red Shoes, mainly cos the dance/fantasy sequences are so mesmerising.

Blue Valentine is a very different film. It's not set in the city world of high culture New York, but in the everyday lives of people in what seems to be the same state, but could be a million miles away. Told partly in the present, and partly in flashback, the film shows the relationship of a couple, Cindy and Dean, at its start, and as it ends. But strangely, the middle part is missing. I wanted to know at what point things start to deteriorate, and what made them miss the importance of that key moment at the time.

The film is shot mainly in extreme close up, and is very intimate. The nadir for me being the bathroom scene where Cindy takes a pee (really that's all that happens). I don't need to see Michelle Williams pretending to be an ordinary woman having a leak to know that this is a naturalistic film, and an intimate insight into a couple's relationship. It's quite an intense experience as a viewer, to effectively become the third, silent partner in a marriage. I kept wondering what it was like for the actors to have a camera so close to them during such intimate moments.

The cleverness of the film lies in the way it makes it difficult for the viewer to take sides. We see an incident early on that makes Dean look an utter git, but then the flashbacks show that he did have some reason for his utter gitness. Before I saw the movie, I thought it would make me cry, but somehow it didn't move me as much as I'd expected (although one of my companions found it 'gut wrenching'). Maybe it was because I didn't actually like either of the characters very much. Also, in reality people's relationships break down all the time, and if you felt for those couples too much, you would be perpetually in tears.

Faithless at the O2
Cast your minds back to December and those icy cold days before Christmas. I'd had tickets for this gig for ages and had been looking forward to it. But I'd been not well and didn't know if I was up to going. I saw Faithless many years ago at a festival, and while they were great, it wasn't the right time and place. It was a sunny afternoon, and nobody felt like dancing. Faithless are a night time band, just not right for sleepy summer afternoons. Subsequently, it'd been a recurring desire to see them again, in a more suitable environment, so I went for it.

I've heard mixed views about the O2 as a venue; it is a vast space, very commercialised and well managed. Some have said soulless. But I did appreciate the fact that unlike the old days when I used to go to Wembley, the location and the transport links mean you aren't in an overwhelming crowd of people on entering and leaving. There's lots of other stuff to do there too, so people arrive and leave at different times. It seemed so easy, just get off the Jubilee line and walk a few hundred metres and you're there.

In my yoof, going to gigs was one of my favourite past times. I loved losing myself in the music, jumping up and down and singing (shouting) along seemed to be a safe outlet for my wilder tendencies. I thought this occasion would be a way of discharging some of the energies that had been building up in side of me. And at first it did feel cathartic. Faithless did a couple of my old faves, God is a DJ, and Insomnia, early on in the set and I took the opportunity to throw myself about with some vigour.

But I'm not sure about the stuff from their most recent album, The Dance, it just seems like retreading old ground. They had a guest singer on for some of those tracks, but I have no idea who it was, I couldn't make it out. He looked and sounded a little like Bono, which is/isn't a good thing, depending on your point of view.

Lead singer Maxi Jazz has an amazing energy and stage presence. But at one point he said 'There's so much love in this room', and I looked around, at the many drunk and knobbish blokes nearby, who seemed to be spoiling for a fight, and thought that was a fairly deluded thing to say. I went out to the loos shortly after, and when I came back, the band were playing I want more, but all the energy and atmosphere seemed to have gone completely flat. We left at this point, as my friend felt the same. I was left feeling like I too wanted more. It had been something of an empty experience.


Anonymous said...


Abdolutely loved reading your blog. You have a real talent as a film critic - I seriously think you should send your reviews to some papers and magazines just to see what they might say. Looking forward to your next entry...

xxx Ciara

hench said...

Wow, am really flattered...hope I can keep up the standard :)

mia said...

I'd forgotten about the Bonoalike! And after seeing Black Swan it was nice to get another angle as I was tired/hungover and it's not an easy film. And you didn't "give anything away" which is important! I'd like to see it again on the Big Screen as I watched it on the Pub Landlord's TV. He buys illegal DVDs. I prefer the cinema...