We follow a psychopath as he finishes his term in prison. He has no ambitions in life other than to commit murder and return to jail. He’s been planning this ever since he first went in, four years ago. After a failed and pathetic attempt to kill a taxi driver shortly after his release, our killer quickly exits the car and leaves his master plan behind. Stumbling across a rural mansion, things don’t get any easier as he breaks in and hides, waiting for potential victims. Four years wasn’t enough time for this master plan.
The killer (played by Erwin Leder) speaks his mind, not communicating with the outside world, but talking in voice-over, directly to the audience. This method works perfectly, transporting us into the mind of a deranged and desperate killer. It acts as a running commentary to the real-time flow of the film, adding a different dimension to the piece, heightening the images that plaster the screen.
When the victims return home (an elderly woman, her mentally-retarded wheel-chair bound son and a carer) they look doomed from the outset. They should be easy targets for the killer, but he soon loses any romanticized vision of his killings as he panics and struggles desperately for an empowerment and dominance over his victims that he never achieves. The violence is quick, painful and exhausting. The camera latches on to the characters, never giving in to the quick cuts of modern cinema. What fascinated me most was the victims never cry out for help, they never really look threatened for their lives, just puzzled and waiting for the killer to make his next move as he stacks up his failures. This is a character that has no redeeming qualities and who keeps on getting worse scene by scene.
In this sub genre, especially in Hollywood, the killer will have a certain amount of charisma about him. Erwin Leder looks as if he stumbled straight out of a mental hospital and onto a film set, his gollum like face and darting eyes only add to his frantic performance. A far cry away from the James Dean-esque Henry (Henry: Portrait of a serial killer). The killer in Angst can’t even kill properly.
The greatest achievement is the style. For a film so vile and repugnant thematically, technically it’s a work of art and true beauty. The camera work in this Austrian film is unlike anything I’ve seen from the 80′s. Techniques aren’t used for show but sparingly, creating a fluid pace flowing organically from one scene to the next, which must be credited to director (Gerald Kargl) and Cinematographer (Academy Award Winner Zbigniew Rybczynski). It’s akin to the works of early Darren Aronofsky and Gaspar Noé, pre-dating them by many years.
I find it unbelievable and very sad that this team didn’t go on to do another feature. Who knows what boundaries they could have pushed next if they got another break, it’s better to burn out that fade away I guess. All this with an eerie, brooding, and at times electro score (performed by Klaus Schulze who was briefly in Tangerine Dream who scored the highly underrated ‘Strange Behavior’) makes for essential viewing. Angst will grow in cult status year upon year.
Ben Simpson is the Co – Director of Patrol Men
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So Black Swan has performed gamely at the UK box office. Certainly much better than its cousin title, Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler. Why might this be? The high art of the ballet world certainly brings in the older audiences, but what else separates this film from the The Wrestler?
In many great films there is often something happening behind the scenes the audience is unaware of. In fact, it works better if the audience is not aware. What am I talking about? Sub-story – the dark and traumatic core that lies at the heart of certain films, creating deeper emotion, meaning, ambiguity.
But these are dark and bizarre waters. Their meanings are hidden, like dream time where the human mind seems unable to confront simple truths directly. Their truth needs to be excavated from below the innocent surface appearance. Just as fairy tales are disguised life lessons for children, these adult fairy tales take on mature dark themes and wrap them in a shroud of fantasy. If you think any of this is strange, I have two words for you, Michael Jackson.
Examples: much talk has been made of Ridley Scott’s Alien being an allegory of male rape. In Hitchcock’s The Birds, the birds are seen as a manifestation of the mother protecting her son from the amorous advances of his lover – a manifestation of pure incestuous rage. In The Exorcist Regan MacNeil’s supernatural convulsions are read not as demonic possession but as the violent aftershocks of sexual molestation at the hands of Burke Dennings, one of the films lesser characters.
So following this logic where does that leave black swan? I would say that the single great achievement of black swan is to double this logic back on itself. What do I mean?
Nina Sayers is a young, determined, hardworking and technically accomplished ballet dancer. Socially she is sexually naive, polite, subservient, and tentative in assertion, introverted, a loner.
Having landed her dream role as the Swan Queen she must delve into her dark side in order to draw out the qualities that are required for her to play the passionate chaos and dark sensuality of the black swan.
There are four other key figures in Nina’s life: the mother, the teacher, her rival and her predecessor. Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) is classically domineering; she must perceive herself as a failed trajectory, alone and painting cartoonish paintings, herself a failed dancer.
The rival, Lily (Mila Kunis) is the threat, both for the role and the affections of the teacher. Lily outwardly personifies the Black Swan, she sports a natural sexual maturity, candid frankness, the ability to get what she wants, and her proximity to Nina helps unleash these dimensions inside her.
The dance teacher, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) provides an interesting dynamic. We’re never quite sure if he’s trying to seduce Nina or just bring out the best in her dancing by provoking her sexually.
The predecessor, Beth (Winona Ryder) is the film’s store house for Nina’s feminine fear of aging and living up to the male ideal.
Now here is the critical point. Nina suffers from scratches on her back, possibly self inflicted night wounds. In a troubling piece of bodily dysmorphia these scratches eventually develop into the complete physical manifestation of the black swan.
The big question. Where did the unease that brought on the scratches originate? Simple answer: the sexual proximity of the mother, best typified by the masturbation scene where Nina discovers her mother is in the room with her. The mother has literally entered Nina’s fantasy space. At another point Nina licks icing off the end of her mother’s finger and later it is her mother’s phallic fingers that are slammed against the door when Nina finally rebels and shuts her out of her room.
There is passing resemblance in Lily to Nina’s mother. It is as if Nina’s lesbian encounter with Lily becomes a legitimate outlet for her repressed incestuous feelings. So here we arrive at the typical sub story reading of Black Swan. Very good.
So we could take this further and speculate that Nina’s mother has violated Nina in the past, but no, I think not, here I would suggest another reading. I think Nina’s mother is more or less the innocent here. I think she plays a complimentary role to the dance teacher. Erica sexualises her relationship with her daughter to fill a void in the dancer’s (and her) life, just as the apparently sleazy choreographer seems more interested in unleashing Nina’s dangerous sexuality, not for a cheap rustle in the sheets but a higher calling, for performance.
The theme of black Swan is sacrifice for art. Nina does not play the game of life; instead she opts to be the carrier of a sublime moment that gives meaning, the response to a mysterious calling, played to perfection.
Read my follow-up article on Black Swan HERE
My name’s Ian. I’m a writer and Filmmaker from London currently shooting my second feature film – a detective thriller called Dead Unicorns
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