Black Swan

“I know it’s been done to death… but not like this.”  That’s what director Thomas Leroy (the intoxicating Vincent Cassel) tells his ballet company when he announces they’re beginning the season with a new production of Swan Lake, explaining it will be “stripped-down” and “visceral.”  He might as well have been talking about Black Swan as well, for it’s the type of psychological thriller we’ve seen a lot of in recent years.  The plot is a strange amalgamation of Showgirls and Single White Female, yet still wholly original and horrifying.

When Leroy eventually casts Swan Lake, its a dedicated young dancer named Nina (Natalie Portman) who lands the lead — the emotionally and physically demanding dual role of both the Black and White Swan.  Nina’s casting pushes the former star attraction (Winona Ryder, who makes quite an impression in just a few scenes) into retirement and alienates her from the rest of the dancers based on Leroy’s reputation with his pet dancers.

While Nina’s rigid style ideally fits the mold of the White Swan, she struggles to tap into the sensuality required for the character’s dark alter-ego.  She begins to feel threatened by a new, less refined dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis in a shockingly good breakthrough role).  Lily might lack the technical prowess of Nina, but she dances with the free-flowing passion that Leroy has been trying to get out of Nina.

The obsessive Nina succumbs to the pressures from her seductive director and her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), and the role quickly moves from all-consuming to out-of-body entirely.  Natalie Portman is mesmerizing in a role that she has been attached to for nearly ten years.  Her physical transformation into the ultra-skinny body of a ballet dancer is just as impressive as the emotional whirlwind she puts us through.

Though the film takes place in the glossy, high class world of ballet, the cinematography by Aronofsky’s long-time collaborator Matthew Libatique is gritty and intimate.  He makes good use of extreme close-ups and long takes during the dance sequences, which give us room to appreciate the work Portman has put in and the craft of ballet as a whole.  The haunting score from Clint Mansell (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) adds to the atmosphere.  We never feel at ease, even in the most innocent, low-key moments.

Director Darren Aronofsky has always had a way with pushing the audience into feeling a character’s perspective, but this is a different animal entirely as he blends reality with delusional ambiguity.  His use of mirrors and shadows as doppelgangers is brilliant, borrowing heavily from 1940s film noir.  I do, however, think he goes to the well a bit too often with the over-the-shoulder POV shot that worked so well in The Wrestler.

This is a world that, much like professional wrestling, forces its performers to use their bodies in a uniquely athletic ways.  They’re practically beating themselves up for the sake of entertainment.  Black Swan exhibits the emotional distress of striving for perfection — and the mind is even more fragile than a tiny dancer’s ankle or toenail.


9 Responses to “Black Swan”
  1. Lyz says:

    Finally, someone else that has a) seen Black Swan and b) liked it. I avoided any write ups on the film after watching the trailer in August because I didn’t want any spoilers. But after coming out of the theatre, heart still pounding in my chest, I was surprised to find the distaste by some top critics. I agree with your review, for the most part. I didn’t mind the over-the-shoulder camera angle, but I haven’t seen The Wrestler or any other of Aronofsky’s film, though I will now. Though the characters are stock and archetypes, they are all well-played that I could care less for their lack of arc, for instance Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey. Hopefully come awards season, Black Swan will be taking many bows.

    • I checked out your blog. I find it incredible that you’re a film student and haven’t seen a single Aronofsky film. His work should be mandatory for anyone in film school, and he’s quite possibly the greatest American director working today.

      • The greatest American director working today would be Terrence Malick.

      • I suppose that’s true, Frank. I’d just need to see another film from him to say for sure because The New World wasn’t his best work. I need to know that he still has “it.” Aronofsky is pretty damn close though. He is incredibly consistent and hasn’t made a bad film yet.

      • I agree, but if New World is your “worst” film, you’re not doing too bad. I think PT Anderson and Scorsese are slightly ahead of Aronofsky, but I like your thinking.

  2. I’m glad to see that other people have enjoyed this film like I did. One could feel that everything in this film was planned to perfection and from the opening credits it draws one out of the theater and into the film. I felt like I was in dream once the film ended. However, I didn’t feel like the OTS shots were overused, and cant think of a better way to have shot those scenes. This is the best film I’ve seen all year, edging out 127 Hours ever so slightly.

  3. Darren says:

    I am so looking forward to this film that it’s just not funny. For some reason, on this side of the Atlantic, we’re waiting until January to see it. And, although I know it will probably be terrible, I am curious as to what Darren Aaronofsky’s The Wolverine will look like.

  4. Castor says:

    It’s a bit odd that not too many people are drawing the analogy with Mulholland Dr, a movie that Black Swan is extremely similar too in thematic content. I enjoyed Black Swan quite a lot although I didn’t think it was more than a high brow horror movie with world-class acting. For the most part, the movie lacks the fire and passion that it seems to preach to its protagonist.

  5. Chad Brachbill says:

    I am super glad I found this website. You are very thorough in what you write, yet not too over analytic. In the future, before watching a movie, I’m coming to this site. Very well done and great to find someone who loves me as much as me.

    Thank you very much for taking the time.

    Chad Brachbill

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