Swanning around in black tie


As part of Keble Arts Festival, on Thursday Oxford’s own Hacked Off Films followed last term’s successful Ferris Bueller’s Day Off screening with an immersive tribute to Darren Aronofsky’s unsettling psychodrama, Black Swan.

After its release in 2010 the film saw Natalie Portman deservedly scoop up multiple Best Actress awards for her appearance as ambitious ballerina Nina Sayers. The film somewhat ambiguously follows the fracturing of Nina’s psyche as she prepares to dance both the white and black swans of Swan Lake.

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The team at Hacked Off certainly lived up to claims of being bigger and bolder, proving that their imagination and ingenuity is not limited to only ‘feel good’ films. The re-created world of Black Swan was understandably much more sinister than those previously brought to us by HO, and it was also perhaps more stereotypically ‘Oxford’ in its black tie sophistication.

Less sophisticated, however, is getting lost and deciding to follow people in black tie hoping they’ll lead you where you need to go, only to find that there are two black tie events occurring simultaneously in one college. Only in Oxford.

Compared to the ugly concrete and ancient chalkboards of the English Faculty building, which provided the backdrop for HO’s Ferris event, the Keble O’Reilly theatre was a blessing in terms of the various spaces it provided. Hacked Off were resourceful in putting many parts of the building to use in order to create another unique immersive cinematic experience, blending live music and theatre with art installation and a well-chosen film.

We began by mingling amongst champagne (Tesco’s finest?) and canapés to the soundtrack of a string quartet playing music from Swan Lake itself, the now-infamous strains which were also used to score Aronofsky’s film.

Just as we got comfortable, an eerily recognisable voice began to intone familiar words. An actor gave an impressive imitation of Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) speech announcing the retirement of veteran dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) and introducing Nina, his new Swan queen, to the distinguished guests of the ballet.

This moment of imitation from the film served as a fitting introduction, especially within the context of a reception room dressed elegantly in black and white to resemble both the foyer from the film and allude to the two parts of Nina’s role. The atmosphere created was closer to a visit to the ballet than the cinema.

However, this soon changed as we were next ushered down several flights of stairs and through a cramped corridor, all of which were surprisingly close in appearance to the backstage areas where much of Aronofsky’s film takes place. Here more actors bustled around in headsets, suggesting the claustrophobic panic of opening night at the ballet, but causing some confusion among audience members as to whether something had gone wrong.

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More successful however, were the sets we passed while walking the corridors; actors could be seen stretching or applying stage make-up in dressing rooms strewn with tights and leotards. This was a far more subtle and realistic touch.

Finally we passed a recreated version of the bedroom-cum-studio of Nina’s mother, a role performed to fabulously creepy and overwhelming effect by Barbara Hershey. Although the drawings which paper the wall appeared (somewhat understandably) more hurried than those in Black Swan itself, they provided a necessary evocation of the darker world we were about to enter.

This walking tour, strangely reminiscent of interactive seaside haunted house attractions, ended with the audience entering the auditorium from backstage. But first we had to look down at dancers on the stage, just as Nina does in the film.

Despite the originality of Hacked Off’s vision, which goes far beyond the creativity of famed audience-participation screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (let’s NOT do the time warp again), their additions to Aronofsky’s film are references to be perceived by those who know and love Black Swan. This is a brilliant way to re-watch a film, especially one which is so amenable to repeated viewings, but it may be less enjoyable for newcomers to the film.

The immersive elements of this screening occurred largely prior to the playing of the film, although it was also followed by a further set piece at the exit. Potentially to the disappointment of some, once the film began it was allowed to play without interruption. In a sense, Hacked Off were limited by their own medium, but their views on the thriller genre aptly explain this decision. HO cite the construction of tension within individual scenes and the larger plot as important features of successful thrillers, finding Black Swan’s achievement here ‘sublime’. Although some might argue that more could have been done during the film to live up to the label of immersive cinema, HO have ultimately chosen to respect Aronofsky’s work by not disrupting the suspense it ably builds all on its own.

Audience reaction was also testament to the wisdom of this decision; nervous energy was apparent in the form of gasps, shrieks and giggles at several points (anything involving blood or self-harm, and especially that part you really don’t want to watch with your mum).

If you missed out this time be sure to look out for Hacked Off’s next event, coming to an Oxford location near you. As usual details are top-secret, but we do have a cryptic clue to pass on for any sleuths among you: 23 77 OHU 545 pineapple. 

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