REVIEW: ‘Black Swan’

Grade: B-

In the four films in Darren Aronofsky’s filmography that precede his latest Black Swan it has been nearly impossible to determine a consistent style. From the slowly paced, cerebral Pi to the frenetic and visceral Requiem for a Dream and the redemptive character study The Wrestler, Aronofsky has approached each new project with excellent storytelling ability and great imagination. In Black Swan there is some of the first evidence of a theme emerging for Aronofsky as we see the fast-paced visual style of Requiem for a Dream combined with the character depth of The Wrestler. The result is a film that has some of the best features of Aronofsky’s previous works, but lacks much of the imagination.

Black Swan is a powerful story of obsession and it features a tour de force performance from its star Natalie Portman, but despite all of the psychological tension there is not much below the surface. It’s a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve and in its two-hour running time it visits just about every emotional extreme. The argument could be made that this is Aronofsky’s first foray into the horror genre and it’s obviously an unfamiliar territory for him as he often breaks from his visual style to borrow from other horror films. The acting from Portman brings the film to a deeper level, but overall the film emphasizes Aronofsky’s weaknesses as much as it highlights his strengths.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is one of the oldest members of a struggling ballet company run by the conceited and cruel Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Like many theatre and dance companies before them, this company has chosen a populist piece in order to draw an audience back – Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. Despite her uptightness, Leroy casts Nina as the Swan Queen and begins a psychologically demanding rehearsal schedule with the hopes of releasing Nina’s inner slut and making the Black Swan convincing.

Nina’s desire for perfection becomes an obsession that is further driven by her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) who treats her 20-something daughter like a young child. There is also the new dancer in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who becomes a quick favorite of Leroy’s and fierce competition for Nina in her drive for absolute perfection. Nina’s obsession inspires paranoia and schizophrenic hallucinations as she spirals downward psychologically, upward professionally, and loses her perspective of what is real.

As ballet is a subject that not every filmgoer is fluent in, Aronofsky uses Leroy to speak to the audience and tell them what is constitutes good or bad dancing. Despite using a foot double for many scenes, Portman is remarkably convincing when she is performing the routines. The movie is not directly about the dancing, but the world of ballet is an appropriate setting for the story Aronofsky is attempting to tell because of the cutthroat competition among lifelong dancers. The dancers line up to plié and jeté while all looking identical in appearance and movement. This unification allows for Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique to do some inventive framing that creates suspicion about which dancer is actually Nina. The camera follows Nina like a stalker in the night, bringing the paranoia into the audience’s perspective.

In one of the opening scenes when Leroy is informing the dancers that “Swan Lake” is his choice for their next production he defends it by saying: “Done to death I know, but not like this. We’re going to strip it down, make it visceral and real.” This is Aronofsky’s way of saying that obsession movies like Black Swan may have been done before, but not in the intense and visceral way that he intends to present it. Unfortunately the promise turns out to be all talk as the film ends up feeling a lot like other horror movies and therefore feels predictable. Every time Nina slowly backs out of a room with dramatic music playing we know she is going to bump into somebody. Once the hallucinations are established it becomes obvious what is in the head and what is real and it feels less imaginative than Aronofsky’s other films.

The screenplay for Black Swan comes from newcomer writing team of John McLaughlin, Andres Heinz, and Mark Heyman who combined only have one previous feature film writing credit (2005 disaster Man of the House). They seem to have a good grasp on the material, but weaknesses come through in their dialogue writing. Powerful acting and careful directing are able to diminish that weakness, but minor characters like Winona Ryder’s Beth are reduced to catch-phrase spouting cartoons.

The strongest performance undoubtedly comes from Portman who gets bonus points for degree of difficulty. The level of emotional extremes she needs to achieve are drastic and she manages to use her body in remarkable ways to bring that emotion to the audience. While the camera explores her entire body, it is actually her eyes that prove to be her most powerful tool with an incredible sense of doubt in everything she sees. Mila Kunis also shines as Nina’s foil bringing sexuality and seduction into every frame while simultaneous maintaining a sense of kindness.

Bottom Line: Black Swan is less imaginative than Aronofsky’s other films, but its lead performance makes it a venture that should be seen with reservations.

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  • I agree on a few disadvantages in terms of screenplay, but I found the film to be extremely successful in more than just Portman’s performance. It’s a lot more unique and visionary than the plot descriptions give it credit for, and it’s frighteningly relatable for those at the start of their careers.

  • I agree that the screenplay is flawed, but not in terms of dialogue and exposition. I felt it was structurally ineffective at times and spent much of the first half tip-toeing around the actual story.

    But other than that I pretty much loved it.

    @Duncan, you hit it exactly by calling the performance/film “relatable.” I felt so much empathy towards her the entire film. And I felt that it wasn’t just simple emotions being conveyed, it was like the specific reaction to her specific scenario.

  • Jose

    Well, that explains why the film is gone from your list of best original screenplay predictions.

    And hey, I loved the film too.

  • Only a B-! I just got back from seeing it, and I thought it was amazing! Natalie Portman was atonishing, and Mila Kunis, Barbra Hershey, and Vincent Cassel were excellent. I agree that once the hallucinations are established, it is easy to tell what is a dream from what is real, but I didn’t mind that really.
    @Duncan/Davin – I also felt such empathy for Nina.

  • I personally did not find her plight very relatable, but I definitely have seen traits that she shares with many of the students I work with. The problem is that people like her drive themselves crazy looking for technical perfection and end up presenting something that feels without feeling and hollow.

  • It isn’t her plight that I empathize with so much as each given situation, her reaction seems fully natural. I am really commenting more on Portman’s performance than the film itself in that regard.

    Going back to your complaints about dialogue, I have to say I disagree. I was fairly impressed the whole way through. It doesn’t have exposition or explanation on the level of Inception or, I felt, more than it needed at all. Another great element of the screenplay is how each character represents a part of the actual Swan Lake.

    As for the hollowness, this is what keeps her from being completely lost in dancing. What she lacked was passion. But her mother and the old dancer show the results of passion. Passion consumes your entire life, and once it’s gone, the life is left empty. SPOILER When she discovered passion, she died. END SPOILER

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but I disagree with the results. Specifically, I feel like the clear distinction between hallucination and reality makes the film different from a typical horror film, it keeps it a controlled. Whereas common horror films are essentially chaos. And I think this distinction is only fully revealed in the final scenes as Nina herself discovers what is real.

    That’s just my two cents. Oh and I thought Vincent Cassel was spectacular as well!

  • Andrew R.

    Black Swan will be making my Top 10 of 2010. My one complaint: they needed to explain the plot of Swan Lake. Unnecessary.

  • Anessa

    I don’t know if I can necessarily love Black Swan. I can acknowledge that it was beautifully made and acted. But I can’t get over the fact that I was looking away 35% of the time.

    Me and the hallucinations didn’t quite get along, which was my initial fear after seeing the trailers. But the subject matter was interesting, and really liked the ending. Don’t know if I can see along though, haha.

  • Quinn

    @Anessa – Haha I can relate. During the trailer, I was actually having second thoughts about seeing it haha. It was actually less graphic than I was expecting to be, although there were scenes when I looked away. The scene where Nina started peeling the skin off of her finger was disgusting haha.

  • Brandon Cooley

    I loved The Wrestler, but hated Requiem for a Dream. So I’m still debating on whether or not I should see this.

  • Brandon… you should. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty terrific. My review will be up Tuesday for those who are interested.

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