Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?
Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.
Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.
Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.
Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.
At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.
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What’s the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced? That grazed knee in the playground? A bit of cramp? A broken bone? Childbirth? You’d probably rather not share it or dare to relive even a slither of the agony. I’m male (so no excruciating deliveries of life) and I’ve never broken a bone. Not so much as chipped one. I cannot even imagine the pain of 22 adequate punches and seriously doubt I’d be able to stomach it; let alone 22 Bullets. That’s 22 pieces of pointed, sharp, solid metal thumping through your flesh at unfathomable speed, decimating the building blocks of you.
Now, off the top of your head, pick a tough nationality; the country most likely to breed the sort of superhuman capable of withstanding multiple gunshot wounds. Some of you probably instinctively pictured Arnie’s hard-as-nails, naked and battered frame in Terminator. I’m willing to bet none of you conjured the image of a Frenchman. France is a nation famed for its culture, its cuisine and its romance. In Britain members of a certain generation will think of the French as nothing but well-groomed surrender monkeys. It’s not a land known for its grunting and formidable bad-asses.
And yet one of their number is an internationally recognisable action-man. Playing key figures in big films like The Da Vinci Code and Ronin, Jean Reno is a Frenchman with attitude, as comfortable with a semi-automatic in his hand as he is with a single red rose or cloves of garlic. He gives 22 Bullets, aka L’Immortel, bags and bags of globally acknowledged gravitas.
Out on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 31st January, 22 Bullets is a French gangster film set in Marseilles with the occasional drizzle of style. It’s fast paced and hard-hitting but rarely anything exceptional. However there are easily enough thrills and plot twists to have your eyes locked in a constant frenetic dance between the subtitles and the action set-pieces. At times you won’t have a clue what’s going on and the ending, for me anyway, came from nowhere and was somewhat inexplicable, but surprising at least.
The filmmakers clearly value the plot, despite there being nothing that remarkable or beguiling about it. The only details accompanying my disc of the film explained that Reno’s character is shot in an underground car park 22 times, and left for dead, despite abandoning his old life as a feared criminal in favour of family. “Against all the odds, he doesn’t die…” Apparently based on a true-story, the film skips fairly quickly over the shooting so important to the title, even if it is the catalyst for later events. The tag-line above had me imagining a bleeding and dying Reno, stumbling from the car park like a zombie to engage in an immediate shoot-out for revenge. What actually happens is slightly more plausible. Reno’s character, Charly Mattei, recovers in hospital. He then still vows to return to his peaceful family life and only takes up arms again when his trusted friend and aide is attacked.
For the most part 22 Bullets succeeds at being more than a good vendetta movie. There is some very funny dialogue between Reno and other gangsters, and Reno and the police. There are some luxurious shots of the French Riviera and locations are contrasted well. The golden lighting in the scenes in the hills with family works well against the harsher, urban and shadowy light during criminal scenes in the city. The majority of the action scenes have a compelling, realistic edge. The initial shooting is shocking in typical slow-mo. An exciting motorbike chase climaxes with Mattei deliberately hitting a police car head-on to evade his pursuers. Gun-fights and retribution assassinations are generally satisfying and suitable.
Sadly for fussy viewers like myself, little details in 22 Bullets really start to grate and diminish the enjoyment factor. I was willing to suspend my disbelief at the remarkable recovery from 22 potentially mortal wounds. But it’s not long before the signs of Mattei’s ordeal are non-existent. And an atrocious scene, in which Reno endlessly crawls through unfeasible amounts of barbed wire, as if more proof were needed of his invincible credentials, climaxes equally annoyingly. A car he’s thrown himself onto careers to a halt in an almost slapstick fashion as the film is needlessly sped up. It’s a shame that such corner cutting, shoddy shots made it into a largely well executed film.
On the whole 22 Bullets is an essentially harmless, enjoyable experience. The bouts of annoyance induced by some lacklustre moments and large helpings of cliché were not enough to spoil my day. A continual message about the importance of forgiveness and family runs through the film, which I get the feeling would resonate more with a continental audience than us Brits, or I could just be cold hearted and lifeless. It’s basically a decent action movie with a refreshing foreign flavour. But not one I could recommend buying.
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