Monday, October 25, 2010

LFF 2010: Northern Lights, Black Swans

Dave from Victim of the Time, reporting from the 54th BFI London Film Festival.

We're winding down now. Today's gala screening, the sparky, perceptive The Kids Are All Right, is old news on American shores, so it's a good thing that I've taken so long to ponder over today's films. Today's theme might be... don't expect too much. You'll only get hurt.

Darren Aronofsky’s films consume. They consume the characters, slowly more obsessed with a singular goal or self-destructive impulse, but they consume the audience too. His last film, The Wrestler, was, despite its emotional intensity, less stylistically immersive than is typical of him. We are, in more ways than one, back to ‘normal’ with Black Swan, which simply can’t resist overpowering you with the contrasting black and white thematics of Swan Lake. Any other colour scheme would seem nonsensical, but Aronofsky doesn’t merely prescribe to the ballet’s bald imagery. The whole film seems to mimic the necessarily overdramatic, telegraphed stylisation of the whole artform; the escalating nightmarishness of Nina’s (Natalie Portman) fixations are pitched to the rafters, defiantly relishing the kind of flourishes of red and flashes of madness that Powell & Pressburger would be proud of.

It’s a fine balance, though, and the trappings of imitating such a florid style are easy to fall through even as it delivers vivid, scorching imagery. As a result, it often feels as though it’s in service of an increasingly flimsy set of dynamics. Nina is, physically speaking, a huge step forward for Portman, but as a character to inhabit, she’s reduced to an alarmingly simple ‘coming-of-age’ narrative: a realisation of sexuality, a rebellion, and a descent into madness that, since it is telegraphed right from the off, she is never defined apart from. Confusing, and possibly reductive, suggestions about sexuality (and particularly lesbianism) rear their head, and, coupled with the similarly basic friction between oppressive mother and stunted daughter, Black Swan leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mind at points from the sheer abundance of cliché.

If I sound like I’m being overwhelming negative, it’s merely because my expectations were far higher than any film deserves. The viscerality of the Black Swan experience is such that it’s not difficult to commend, and indeed recommend, and it doesn’t entirely deny Portman the chance to, er, spread her wings. But, ultimately, it feels like a step back for Aronofsky, a triumph of style over substance, and even if the style is slightly magnificent, it’s still a niggling disappointment. (B)

I spent a lot of time sitting watching Aurora, and most of it was spent trying to find the greatness in it. I knew it had to be there somewhere; after all, Cristi Puiu’s previous feature, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, was a majestic, darkly ironic masterstroke, so there had to be at least a hint of it here somewhere. Finally, as the film approached its end, the rather restless audience around me seemed to find some appeal, chuckling away at the film’s sudden change of tone, and I gave up. There is good in Aurora, but not only is it never great, the goodness is drowned. The film’s intriguing treatment of violence as an event barely more notable than an exchange of money or visiting your parents’ house seems to make sense of the extraordinary running time, but the slowness of the building character study never justifies this length. Puiu’s favouring of long shots, with diegetic sound covering dialogue, seem gratuitously inscrutable rather than fascinating, and though the closer shots are alert and responsive, the lethargy of the film is overwhelming. As the film gathers pace and events are felt a bit more keenly, Aurora seems headed to a meaningful apex, but it torpedoes itself with a finale of absurdity within its realist aesthetic, with the sardonic, humourous social commentary suddenly laid on so obviously it’s as if we’re being buried beneath it. As Puiu introduced the screening, he seemed to acknowledge the wearing length, but it seems he couldn’t resist. Depth, Cristi, doesn’t necessarily require length. (C)

It’s unlikely, no, that a film would name itself after something so intriguing and then barely engage with it? For the soap-opera dynamics of the half of Patagonia that actually takes place in Patagonia don’t have any need to be there at all, although I doubt they’d be much more engaging in California or Siberia than they are here. Rather curiously sheathed in half, with two plots that are cleanly unrelated, the film swerves between Patagonia and Wales without much rhyme or reason. There isn’t much sense of Patagonia as a place distinct from any of the rest of South America, except that the characters – two of whom are visitors – speak in Welsh. Showing the disconnect that should likely be the point of the film, the characters in Wales speak in Spanish, though this plot is played much more heavily for the cultural tension. As the soap-opera dynamics of infidelity and a tired coming-of-age plot crowd the film and Wales is inevitably depicted as a rosy, pastoral landscape, any deeper angles that have been vaguely suggested are shunted aside. The brief hints of something more specific that we are given make the film’s overall disinterest even more maddening – there are stories here being ignored, snubbed for ones that have probably been written during a deep sleep. (C-) [edited from full review]

Still left on the LFF docket are Sofia Coppola's Venice champion Somewhere, and closing night film 127 Hours, which Nathaniel just left word on. If you're so inclined, take a look at the screening log on my sidebar and let me know if there's any film you're just desperate to hear my thoughts on, and I'll slip it into my final post in a few days.


Andrew R. said...

I didn't really care about Patagonia, but since I love Aronosfsky and Death of Mr Lazarescu, I am kinda disappointed.

Mostly with Aurora, since I'll take a B for Black Swan.

Danny King said...

I was also just a tad underwhelmed by Black Swan. For my money, Aronofksy's subtler, more accessible approach to these themes was more effective in The Wrestler. While I still admire the film, his unrelenting approach to Black Swan is viscerally satisfying, but less of an emotional triumph by film's end.

Sawyer said...

Say it ain't so! A measly (B)?

Criticlasm said...

I loved Black Swan. A lot. I loved the artistry, and even though you could probably say it went to horror a bit at times, in illustrating how tightly wound some of the dancers are and the craziness of making a role, I thought it succeeded brilliantly. Highly stylized, but loved it