Review: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is undoubtedly one of the boldest filmmakers working today. Black Swan is intended as a companion piece to his previous film The Wrestler – in fact, both were initially conceived as one movie – and though the shot selections may look similar, the meaning derived from them is diametrically opposite. Slowly building to hysteria, this movie ratchets up the intensity until its climactic conclusion, leaving the audience breathless and stunned at the incredible finale.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is a ballerina on the rise, replacing Beth (Winona Ryder) as the lead dancer in a new production of Swan Lake from ballet impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). While her form is excellent due to years of training with her ex-ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina lacks the passion required for the duality of the Swan Queen; new addition Lily (Mila Kunis) has the sensuality necessary for the darker side of the role and the two dancers traverse a psychological battlefield on the road to the opening night performance.

Let’s get this out of the way: Natalie Portman clearly deserves an Oscar nomination (and probably a win – I haven’t seen every movie this year, so it’s hard to say for sure) for her work as Nina. Pure and simple, she loses herself in the role and delivers one of those special performances people will be talking about for years. Again, like The Wrestler before it, this is an intensely personal movie that hinges on the performance of its lead, and Portman gamely raises her commitment to a level previously unseen from the young actress.

While Natalie has been earning rave reviews the world over, I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the supporting cast. Barbara Hershey is great as the overprotective mother living vicariously through her daughter’s success, and Vincent Cassel shines as the ballet director and choreographer, taking his cues from Anton Walbrook’s Boris Larmontov in The Red Shoes. Mila Kunis truly stands out with her most impressive work to date; Lily’s sensuality perfectly complements the repressed and subdued Nina and the competition between the two turns fierce.

I won’t pretend to have seen The Red Shoes or Suspiria any earlier than last week or for any other reason than in preparation for Black Swan, but I’m certainly glad I watched those movies. While not required viewing, they lay the groundwork for another level of appreciation of Aronofsky’s latest, and their influence, both in style and story, is clearly on display in Black Swan. Stylistically, the film leans more toward Argento’s Suspiria, a visually striking film about a ballerina who discovers her academy is run by a coven of witches. But the story – especially the “story-within-a-story” elements – seem to be directly influenced by The Red Shoes, a movie about a young upstart ballerina taking on the lead in a new ballet inspired by a fairy tale.

Matthew Libatique, who has worked with Aronofsky on all of his previous films, returns as the cinematographer. Libatique’s camera sways closely across the stage with the dancers acting almost as a dance partner itself, providing a unique experience for the audience and an intimacy with the characters that a stationary camera could not achieve. The iconic “following” shots from The Wrestler are repeated here, but with a totally different meaning: with the camera at the back of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a sense of history and Mickey Rourke’s broken-down physique led us to believe this was a man on his way out, the camera serving almost as a reminder of times long past. Here, the camera lingers behind Nina – a dancer in peak physical condition – and her quick pace highlights her determination and desire for perfection, the camera very nearly manifesting itself into her drive as a performer.

The opening scene was stunning, a long continuous shot of Nina dancing with the black-feathered evil sorcerer from Swan Lake, accented only by a single spotlight. There are also a few neat tricks involving mirrors, most of which take place directly behind a character but hide the camera from view (aided, of course, by post-production work). A nightclub scene illuminated by strobe lights and drenched in red and green provided another callback to the color palette used in Suspiria, but the fractured images and rapid editing here complimented this section of the story, in which Nina is on a drug fueled binge before her big performance.

Clint Mansell, also a frequent Aronofsky collaborator, provides the musical score and turns out another phenomenal piece of work. Inspired by the music in Swan Lake, Mansell infuses classical compositions with his patented dynamism and composes songs that highlight the operatic feel of the movie. Mimicking the dichotomy that runs through the movie, Mansell’s score feels like the music to an actual ballet but somehow manages to simultaneously feel like a film score. Tough to put into words, but you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s a strange mixture, but one that works incredibly well and serves to heighten the drama of the story and the intensity of the movie’s increasingly insane visuals.

And oh, do those visuals get insane. The movie has hints of weirdness peppered through the first hour – an unexplained rash here, a mirror flash there – but at a certain point, the bottom drops out and we’re treated to near Lynchian levels of craziness. I don’t want to ruin any of these moments for you – that’s half the entertainment value of the movie – but suffice it to say Aronofsky holds nothing back, and the second half of the movie chronicles a descent into madness that will have you questioning everything you’ve seen thus far. There’s a horror vibe that comes in near the end, unabashedly playing up the “psychological” part of the film’s “psychological thriller” genre.

There is so much going on in this movie that I feel like I need another viewing to fully comprehend all of it. Aronofsky refuses to be content with a simple All About Eve-inspired tale of competition between athletes; he soaks the movie with complex sexual messages (using sex as an aid to artist’s freedom of expression) and, like this year’s Inception before it, mixes dream imagery with reality in a very interesting way. Black Swan is, perhaps more than anything, an ardent celebration of the sacrifices artists make for their craft. The final scene, beautiful and horrifying at the same time, is a prime example; although reminiscent of Tarantino’s last bit of dialogue from Inglourious Basterds, the final line in Black Swan is not quite as self-serving as QT’s, instead providing a haunting conclusion to a cinematic concussion grenade whose last twenty minutes knocked the wind out of me.

This is also one of the most erotic mainstream releases in recent memory. If you’re averse to on-screen sexuality at all, you’ll surely find yourself extremely uncomfortable at multiple points in this film. A fearless sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had the blogosphere buzzing months before the movie’s release; rightly so, since that particular scene is pretty damn graphic. I’m honestly a bit surprised the MPAA allowed this one out the door with an R rating, considering their notorious voting habits regarding sexuality in film. I’m also a bit surprised a Hollywood studio would tackle this type of subject matter, but speaking with a friend of mine afterwards and realizing the budget for the film was less than $15 million, I’m sure Fox Searchlight figured they could make their money back with the talent attached to this project.

Black Swan is a gorgeous movie filled with outstanding performances and brazen filmmaking. Aronofsky consistently makes movies I can’t imagine anyone else directing, and this is no exception. It will be very interesting watching him go from a project like this to his upcoming X-Men movie The Wolverine (a standalone story with Hugh Jackman reprising his role as the title character), as I’m wildly curious to see what an Aronofsky superhero movie looks like. While Black Swan possesses shades of other movies – including Cronenberg’s The Fly, with Nina’s transformation into a physical swan seen in the trailer – it is unquestionably one of the most highly original films of the year and an incredible movie-going experience. Until next time…

  • Zoe

    I’m glad you enjoyed this film. I read the script (for a class) a couple months back and I have been waiting for this movie. I’m glad you thought is was done so well. SO EXCITED TO SEE THIS.

  • Name: Mark

    Why is Natalie always glaring? Why does Winona look like she’s tried on her Dad’s too-big suit for the night?

  • lindsay

    i cannot wait to see this! i wanted to see it when i first saw the trailer a few months ago but after reading all the great reviews, im super psyched! every review ive read has said that this is a PHENOMINAL movie!

  • Chris

    Saw the movie last night and just read your review. Your review is SPOT-ON! Nice work! I’m going to go back and watch those other ballet movied you mentioned. Cheers!

  • Mark Carnaghi

    This film takes the breath right out of you from the beginning. It is beautifully shot and the story is so intense it takes a few days to fully grasp the story. Winona, Natalie, Barbara are incredible. You will not even recognize Winona Ryder.

  • arman

    You talked about anything but the concepts behind the movie.

  • namra

    This movie is passing itself off as art.
    It is no such thing.
    Just a movie and not a very good one, I’m afraid.
    Save your money, wait for the DVD.
    Or better yet, skip this one altogether.

  • marcy

    loved this movie truly original…any movie that make you think like this one does…is worth the price of admission….natalie portman delivers an amazing performance…

  • bob

    How interesting. I agree with everything in this critique, except the conclusions. Natalie does seem destined for Oscar. I thought the music was great, and their are some incredible sections of this film, with real groundbreaking emotion. The sex scenes were truly pornography, which is mitigating and interesting. I do think that many viewers will feel betrayed by the lack of warning about the gorey content and blatant (and persistent) sex scenes. So be it, that’s the way our culture rolls these days. The film is a kind of study of mental illness from the perspective of a suffering victim. In that regard, it is incredible, and like a simulator, almost too realistic for comfort. But the dialogue is often cliche and the audience often laughed during dramatic scenes. Also there is painstaking camera work and sound effects that punish you and I am mixed in feeling on whether they are artistic in nature or the pitiful crutches of a film school project. Winona ryder manages to play her part so askew and wooden it becomes distressing and horrifying to encounter her character. The same can be said of Barbara hershey who in her constant closeups projects a plastic scarred horror that interrupts the slowly ominous plot development. I suppose this is Aronofskys signature, and he is undoubtedly an artist. But golly is this effort hard to sit through, and yet even with all its childish cliches and pandering displays, the till remains. I can’t say this movie has any moral value, it seems to be mired in the modern freudian pretension that mars so many foreign films and has lately been lapped up by the downtown urban children. Anyone who has experienced truly great cinema will probably find this a bit too manipulative and sophmoric to be immortalized. Still, you don’t forget the film easily, and even the grudge type horror effects don’t seem out of place by the end. I believe the final 20 minutes of this film are incredible cinema, especially the ending. The audience universally stepped out immediately in one of the strangest exits ever witnessed, probably because the ending is strangely satisfying and beautiful, and party the incredible relief of tension associated with being released from a stressful situation. I would say go but be prepared for blatant sexual and gorey imagery and themes, also having a drink in you and being a fan of Russian composers will find you well equipped.

  • Fil

    After being totally moved by this movie and the brilliant all round performances I have found most reviews quite lame, this one I think is well done, and it is probably, honestly because I agree with much of it.
    If you have not seen this movie stop here please.
    What I feel is missing in so many reviews of this movie which I decided to read after seeing this absolutely brilliant film, is what I was thinking about while driving home about an hour ago from seeing it for the 1st time. And that is how this beautiful sweet young women, Nina, so intent on perfection and wanting so much to realize her childhood dream (and for her mother at first) internalizes her pain and casting of it on others (hallucinations), with simple yet horrific gore (like when she pulls her cuticle down her finger, that just got me, it hurt to watch/hear/feel). Nina subconsciously finds a way to embrace darkness, to know both the dark and the light, to do what is needed to go there, to achieve the perfection everyone demands from her, by brutalizing herself. Nina’s young mind influenced by physical
    exhaustion, malnutrition, unnatural innocence for her age (due to her overly protective mother/fabulous performance by Barbara Hershey) and inability to attain sexual release assists in tricking her to accomplish the task of becoming the Black Swan. I just love the scene when she is telling the boy/boys in the club about the ballet, as she desire’s to share the beauty of the ballet, speaking with a gleam in her eyes, so kindly offering to comp them tickets to share this beauty, unwittingly naive to their hunger, lust and desire to simply fuck the hot ballerina. But rather than just simply achieving slut status/losing her frigidity, or becoming an evil bitch and murderer to evoke darkness and the sultry character the role of The Black Swan requires, she subconsciously strikes out at herself because she is not capable any other way. Which I think is beautiful.

  • Jpennington

    Very well written review – in fact it helped me understand the movie better. This movie keeps you riveted till the very end – it is so good on so many levels: the performers, the music, the insane imagery which helps you follow Portman’s descent into madness. But is the madness due to the pursuit of perfection or because she achieves perfection?