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BLACK SWAN – Clint Mansell

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

An intense psycho-sexual drama which touches on a number of themes ranging from parental oppression and body dysmorphic disorder to sexual repression and the search for perfection, Black Swan is the latest film from the challenging director Darren Aronofsky, the man behind films such as Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler. Natalie Portman stars in a tour-de-force performance as Nina, a young and talented ballerina in the New York City ballet, whose personal life is dominated entirely by her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer. Artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to promote Nina to the leading role in their new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, as the expense of prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), but Thomas is concerned as to whether the naïve and virginal Nina has enough ‘dark side’ to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan on stage. Into this mix comes the free-spirited and sexually adventurous Lily (Mila Kunis), a transfer from the San Francisco ballet; before long, Nina and Lily embark on a dangerous relationship which is part-friendship part-rivalry, which threatens to shatter Nina’s already tenuous grasp on her sanity.

In Aronofsky’s hands, the world of professional ballet never seemed more brutal. Little girls the world over dream of donning a tutu and becoming a ballerina princess, but the reality is much more demanding: backbiting understudies who would see you broken to get your part, endless hours of grueling routines, and feet which bleed from being en pointe for hours on end are par for the course for these perfectionists, so it’s no wonder they start to go a little crazy. Not content with presenting unfiltered scenes of psychotic breakdowns, self-mutilation and lesbian sex, Aronofsky also dares to mess with a classic: in this case Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s classic 1876 ballet score Swan Lake, via his composer Clint Mansell and conductor/orchestrator Matt Dunkley.

As one would expect, quite a lot of the music in the film is either an homage to, an adaptation of, or a straight performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous score. The legendary Swan Theme and the playful Danse des Petits Cygnes both feature prominently in the film and on the soundtrack CD, but in several key scenes Mansell plays with the music, twisting and manipulating the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s strings with electronic groans and pulses that illustrate Nina’s tortured psyche. The Swan Theme is actually the very first thing you hear, in “Nina’s Dream”, before the intrusive effects begin to worm their way to the forefront of the mix, intentionally obscuring Tchaikovsky’s beauty. Later, the Danse des Petits Cygnes (Dance of the Little Swans) features in “Stumbled Beginnings…”, again accompanied by Mansell’s lurid electronic textures.

Cues such as “Mother Me”, “A Room of Her Own” and “Cruel Mistress” invoke the clear stylistics of Tchaikovsky’s writing, especially in the woodwinds and pianos, without making many direct references to the great Russian’s melodies. One of the most impressive things about Mansell’s work in cues such as these is the way he implies the ‘ghost of Tchaikovsky’ everywhere in the score, almost making it follow Nina around, haunting her, messing with her head, throughout the course of the film. She can’t escape from the pressure of the performance, of the music, of her mother’s vicariousness. It never leaves her alone.

Mansell’s major original cues include “Lose Yourself” and “Opposites Attract”, a pair of haunting and hallucinatory electronic tracks that continue to illustrate Nina’s continually diminishing grasp on reality. The latter of these two gradually takes on an insistent, seductive tone to accompany the now-notorious cunnilingus scene between Portman and Kunis, becoming almost euphoric towards its conclusion. Similarly, “Power, Seduction, Cries” is a strident and insistent string piece which grows more urgent as it progresses, while “The Double” features a dark and brooding motif for piano and percussion which has vaguely Arabic overtones and accompanies the most devastating scenes of Nina’s descent into madness.

Other cues which have an equally disturbing effect include “The New Season”, “Night of Terror” and “It’s My Time”, which are more stark and dissonant, with impressionistic string wails, rumbling pianos, and trancelike electronic effects which buzz backwards and forwards through the speakers in a dizzying manner. During the moments when Tchaikovsky’s music bursts forth in “Night of Terror”, offset by Mansell’s nightmarish contemporary accents (which include what sound like gruff shouts accompanied by metallic scrapes very low down in the sound mix), the effect is quite shocking, but incredibly successful.

The cues which make up the film’s grand finale – “A Swan Is Born” and “Perfection” – contain the longest stretches of pure Tchaikovsky performance, and they are quite glorious. The powerful performance of the ravishing Danse Hongrois (Hungarian Dance) in “A Swan Is Born” is breathtaking, while the extended statement of the magnificent Swan Theme in “Perfection”, with its sweeping refrain and soaring melodramatic string writing, is simply wonderful.

The discordant final piece, “A Swan Song (For Nina)”, again invokes the melodic stylistics of Tchaikovsky through its solo piano writing, but gradually adds layer upon dissonant ambience: subliminal heartbeats that sound like blood rushing through your ears, sounds of breaking glass, tortured-sounding cello chords, and a distressed, distorted electronic version of the Swan Theme, which eventually brings the album to a morbid close. This music, much like the film itself, seems designed to keep the audience on edge.

There is an AMPAS rule which states that “scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible” for the Oscars, which could very well mean that Mansell’s score suffers the same fate as others of its type, and will not be considered for Academy Award nomination. This would be great shame because the use of music to evoke powerful emotions from the audience in this film is quite masterful. The music is front-and-center for a great deal of the running time, highlighting perfectly the way in which music and auditory design can be a powerful tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal.

Black Swan is a tremendously rewarding experience, and is probably my favorite Mansell album since Sahara back in 2005. If nothing else, it provides an excellent reminder of Tchaikovsky’s genius as a composer, especially for a younger generation who might be unfamiliar with his work, while simultaneously reminding us why Clint Mansell is so popular with the kids. Classical purists will absolutely detest what Mansell has done to one of the greatest pieces in musical history, but I applaud his audacity.

Rating: ****

Buy the Black Swan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Nina’s Dream (2:48)
  • Mother Me (1:06)
  • The New Season (2:39)
  • A Room of Her Own (1:56)
  • A New Swan Queen (3:28)
  • Lose Yourself (2:08)
  • Cruel Mistress (3:29)
  • Power, Seduction, Cries (1:42)
  • The Double (2:20)
  • Opposites Attract (3:45)
  • Night of Terror (8:01)
  • Stumbled Beginnings… (3:51)
  • It’s My Time (1:30)
  • A Swan Is Born (1:38)
  • Perfection (5:44)
  • A Swan Song (for Nina) (6:23)

Running Time: 52 minutes 28 seconds

Sony Classical 88697813562 (2010)

Music composed by Clint Mansell. Conducted and orchestrated by Matt Dunkly. Swan Lake, Op.20 written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Nancy Allen. Album produced by Clint Mansell and Matt Dunkley.

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