2010 will be remembered as the year Natalie Portman blossomed from a good actress with lots of potential into a great one. Fitting that she did it in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s sensuous and darkly beautiful psycho-sexual fairytale about a young woman’s personal and professional transformation. Revealing surprising new depths to her talent as a ballerina whose lifelong drive toward the top of her craft threatens to destroy her even as she achieves her greatest dream, Portman breathes life into a film that depends on her almost entirely and would come crashing down if she failed.

Her character is Nina Sayers, a talented but innocent young woman/girl whose whole life exists within the pressure cooker of ballet where friends are enemies, the goal is absolute perfection and the window for holding onto it is short lived. She is a remarkable ballerina in technique, but she has little life experience. When she wins the dual good/evil lead roles in a new production of Swan Lake, she must reach within herself to find a passion and an edge that threaten to break her obsessive self-control and send her fragile persona into madness.

Part drama, part thriller and part horror story wrapped in the kind of coming-of-age folk tale fantasy that inspired the ballet at its core, Black Swan is difficult to categorize and might not have worked without Portman’s powerful central performance. Even putting aside the reported weight loss and months of difficult dance training, she is remarkable. She seizes each subtle shift in Nina’s arc with complete confidence; finessing the audience along on a sometimes bumpy and credulity-pushing ride to a very satisfying end.

As great as Portman is, it takes Black Swan a long time to develop and for an hour or so it seems like it might not ever take flight. In laying the groundwork for his fractured personality story, Aronofsky leans a little too hard on bluntly obvious visual metaphors so that the themes of duality, doppelgangers and good vs. evil hang within easy reach. They’d have been more rewarding had they been harder earned, but the director still does a nice job of ratcheting up the tension and the looming undertones of horror. When the story reaches its climax during the final remarkable 20-minute dance sequence, it’s a thrilling and satisfying catharsis to all that has come before.

Even in the weaker opening half of the film, Portman is fantastic. She perfectly conveys the virginal, semi-stunted naivety of a young woman who has been forced (or perhaps chooses) to remain something of a little girl. As she eventually taps the darkness within her, she captures the frightened sexual panic and vulnerability of a woman’s dawning maturity. Her character is a microcosm of femininity twisted, compressed and made nearly grotesque by the intensity of her life as a dancer.

When the final crescendo comes, it’s no less exhilarating for being expected. With a sudden burst of confidence, power and arousal that are equal measures intoxicating and frightening, Portman transforms her character, the film and herself in a glorious onscreen moment that leaves you buzzing long after the credits roll. It’s the kind of scene that movies and careers are made of and Portman owns it.

As amazing as she is, and she really does lift her craft to a level she’d previously only hinted at, the rest of the cast does a fantastic job of supporting and counterpointing her. Not coincidentally, each of the female characters is physically similar to Nina. They’re not duplicates, but variations on a petite, dark-haired theme. They’re each aspects of Nina’s own morphing personality and they’re seen as friends or foes depending almost entirely on Nina’s own state of mind.

Mila Kunis is Lily, Nina’s dark twin/competitor. She’s a sexier and more intuitive dancer but also less disciplined. Is she a threat for being everything Lily isn’t or is she an ally? Kunis remains enigmatically both and only shows her cards when the story finally reveals itself. Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling/protective mother as a woman who drives her daughter to success while also perhaps harboring a bit of jealousy that the same has eluded her. Winona Ryder is Beth, the fading prima ballerina whom Nina replaces. Beth’s tragedy is that she’s still young, but not young enough and her spotlight has unceremoniously flickered out. She’s a cold reminder of what awaits Nina even if she manages to achieve the success she’s trained her whole life for. In the role, Ryder shows a darkness and an edge we haven’t seen from her very often.

Technically, Black Swan is gorgeous. All pinks and grays and blacks and whites, the clean production design and Matthew Libatique’s photography compliment Clint Mansell’s elegant piano score. Together they form a beautifully simple backdrop across which the complex and intense emotions play out on screen. Finally, a special note should be made of the nifty black swan effects that are used judiciously throughout the film. They bridge the gap between the realistic and the fantastic and help position the whole story in an unsettling other-world.

In the end, Black Swan is a solid film elevated by a marvelous Natalie Portman performance. A bit more restraint and subtlety on Aronofsky’s part and it might have been sublime, but Portman and the finale make it a knock out either way. Gripping, scary, sexy and ultimately very moving, it’s the rare film that throws expectation and genre constraints aside to aim for lasting greatness. It doesn’t quite get there, but Portman does and it’s something to see.

Black Swan. USA 2010. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin from a screen story by Andres Heinz. Cinematography by Matthew J. Libatique. Music score by Clint Mansell with music supervision/direction by Jim Black and Gabe Hilfer. Edited by Andrew Weislub. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder. 1 hour 48 minutes. MPAA rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. 4 stars (out of 5)

34 Responses to “Black Swan (2010)”

  1. I can’t comment on the film yet, but this review is phenomenal. That’s some well-crafted writing.

  2. I hope you dig the film. I think some people will go crazy for it and others won’t be so impressed. Something about it though makes me think you’ll go for it.

    We’ll see.

  3. I’m continuing a conversation about Black Swan from the Watercooler where it started. The relevant comments can be found here, here and here.

    Sam, the slasher film theatrics weren’t intended to distract attention rather to illustrate Nina’s state of mind as she descended into a sexual panic. Red Shoes really doesn’t have much of a connection to Black Swan other than a theme of artistic obsession and the dancing itself. The Polanski connection I’ll buy. To me Black Swan had more in common with Repulsion than it did Red Shoes, but even then Nina’s psychosis was only one aspect of a film that was about much more than just that.

    As for what Aronofsky did to Swan Lake, I don’t see how this is relevant. This was not a ballet film. It was a film that used ballet as a means to amplify the issue at hand which is the arc of a young woman’s life from girlhood to maturity to being whisked off the stage because she’s now past her prime. The ideas in the folk tale behind Swan Lake were neatly folded into Black Swan’s story, but Tchaikovsky doesn’t even enter into it.

    How you could avoid feeling anything for Portman’s character is a complete mystery to me, but one I can’t really argue with. Perhaps that is the key difference between the films fans and its detractors.

  4. This was not a ballet film. It was a film that used ballet as a means to amplify the issue at hand which is the arc of a young woman’s life from girlhood to maturity to being whisked off the stage because she’s now past her prime.

    I haven’t seen Black Swan yet, but after having seen The Wrestler I imagined that the themes of the two films had a connection and that the wrestling and ballet worlds were simply the vehicles for that. Still anxious to see this.

  5. “How you could avoid feeling anything for Portman’s character is a complete mystery to me, but one I can’t really argue with. Perhaps that is the key difference between the films fans and its detractors.”

    Craig, therein does lie the contradiction. I agree with what you say there about the beside-the-point aspect of the Tchaikovsky -which of course wasn’t quite the case with THE RED SHOES, but I think some have found an added level of meaning in the film with a perceived thematic connection. As I stated earlier, this came across to me as a mean-spirited slasher film, that employed some vaunted and iconic cultural hooks to adance its ultimate worth.

    I can see why others would feel differently, but I just didn’t feel it.

  6. Pierre, I struggled with The Wrestler because I had a hard time identifying with or sympathizing with Rourke’s character. It’s the same problem I had with The Fighter which comes out on Friday. I can’t get beyond thinking that whatever problems these dudes have is a direct result of their choice to pummel other human beings for a living and at that point I just tune out.

    Portman’s ballerina was a different thing altogether for me. Maybe I’m just a tutu wearing ballerina at heart…

    Rather than mean-spirited Sam, I found Black Swan surprisingly sensitive. When I’d heard in advance (much to wide spread fanboy delight) about the lesbian and masturbation scenes, my alarm bells went off and in the back of my mind I was suspicious of exactly the kind of exploitation that you saw yourself. I didn’t find that in the film though. For it to be exploitation it seems to me it would have to be offered up only for the sake of titillating the audience and that was not the case here.

    I also think comparing it to a slasher film unfairly loads the argument against it. Yes there was an element of suspense and the sense that Nina was being stalked and there were even “jumps” that you might find in one of those “don’t open that door” numbers, but when I think of slasher films I think of a lot of gore and a lot of violence and I don’t really think that applies here. Black Swan is not Saw 3D.

    Besides that, as I said elsewhere I think the horror undertones (and for me they were very much undertones and not the whole focus) were very effective and articulated Nina’s state of mind.

  7. I surely hope I don’t have a middling perspective on Black Swan, if only because I want to (attempt to) beat up either Sam or Craig. :-)

  8. Dare I say that Psycho and Silence of the Lambs were slasher films? (But I should keep my mouth shut ’til I see Black Swan.)

  9. Well, in many ways, no other single Hollywood film did even a tenth as much as Psycho did to help give birth to the modern slasher flick.

    Perhaps Black Swan has some similarities to Suspiria?

  10. Psycho was a slasher film. I don’t think Lambs was though. More a psychological thriller. I think maybe Pierre’s point though is that slasher films aren’t necessarily a bad thing and they’re not, but the word is being flung at Black Swan as a pejorative and in that sense it doesn’t apply.

    No Alexander, I didn’t get a Suspiria vibe off of Black Swan either. The horror elements were important, but they weren’t the crux of the story.

  11. Craig, as always you are incomparable with your lawyer’s ability to argue a case, and again you’ve made your argument with BLACK SWAN impassioned and persuasive.

    At this point in time however, I am unmoved and unconvinced that the horror elements were not predominant, and that this film was exceedingly mean-spirited. But this is why on many instances two people can look at the same film and come away for fully different reactions.

    I was ravished by THE KING’S SPEECH, while for the most part your generally favorable reaction was far more guarded.

    I need to see INSIDE JOB as soon as possible! Your high regard there is more than persuasive!

  12. Alexander, I have my fingers crossed.

    I like Craig a lot, but I’d prefer that he be the one to get beat up here!!!

  13. You’re a good sport Sam. It should be pointed out that I’m not completely in love with this film and had a number of issues with it myself, just none of the same ones that you had. Black Swan is unlikely to make my Top 10, though it’s still possible.

  14. I absolutely loved this film. Although there were parts that made me cringe, but it was disturbingly brilliant! I’ve never thought Natalie Portman was a great actress, but she convinced me otherwise. I know the whole movie was about finding her black swan and after her performance, she replied “it was perfect.” What exactly did any one think of that?

  15. Now that I’ve seen Black Swan, I feel more comfortable discussing it. I admit there were moments during the earlier portions when I had some doubts — touched upon by both Craig and Sam. However, during the screening I flashed back to my initial reaction to The Silence of the Lambs, which was basically, “meh,” and how that changed drastically for the better upon a second viewing of Demme’s film. Therefore, I found myself viewing Black Swan at face value and discovered some things, part of which may be hard to articulate.

    It’s the unglamorous nature of those intimate moments of our lives, those needful moments, that can seem so tawdry, selfish or unattractive and are therefore difficult to look at, but these can be the most revealing despite and because of their unpleasantness. Aronofsky showed us some of that, and because he didn’t dress it up the temptation may’ve been there to consider the film itself unpolished or somewhat lowbrow. Although Aronofsky certainly has room to grow, I don’t think my initial reaction is the best one.

    Further, Nina’s character goes through dreams/fantasies from her point of view although the audience may not make that connection because what’s real is not clearly obvious at first. So we’re seeing things through her less evolved, naive perspective — not that of a filmmaker.

    I agree that the technical brilliance of the film — combined with Portman’s performance and the climactic ballet sequences — push it over the top for me.

    Because this film seems like a sibling to The Wrestler (which I loved but with minor reservations similar to this film), Aronofsky’s work here may seem like a lateral move. I do think that he’s still “on the way up” regarding the development of his creative filmmaking powers.

    I guess the bottom line is that my sentiments more closely parallel Craig’s than Sam’s, but I feel I understand the source of Sam’s concerns. One other factor to consider is that I’m not well versed in ballet and do not consider this film to be about ballet per se. Its similarity to The Wrestler illustrates that point to me.

  16. after her performance, she replied “it was perfect.” What exactly did any one think of that?

    SPOILER: The first thing that came to my mind was what Winona Ryder’s character said — “Sometimes I was perfect” — and that Winona had an unfortunate fate.

  17. Pierre: One couldn’t possibly ask for a more thorough and beautifully articulated response, which really is the bottom line here.

  18. Thanks, Sam. You’re a prince.

  19. Spoilers abound here:

    I’m a little mystified by the “slasher film” commentary that keeps being thrown around, because if Black Swan has any slasher film elements, then it also subverts the entire genre by making the slasher and the victim the same characters.

    The film is certainly a horror film to my eyes and Aronofsky repeatedly uses horror tropes (rather effectively, I might add) to build tension and suspense, but ultimately this is a film about the monster within, not the monster who is coming after you.

    If anything, Aronofsky’s Black Swan reminds me more of Cronenberg’s horror films of the 80’s and 90’s or Polanski’s early work. The film has some sexual scenes that might have been exploitive in another director’s hands, but here they are critical to understanding Nina’s complex inner-battle.

    Aronofsky’s camera often stalks Portman’s Nina, following her much the way her counterpart does in the opening dance sequence, but these camera moves are just as common in the Dardenne Brothers’ films or Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Those aren’t slasher films either, but equally complex works to Black Swan.

    I do agree that occasionally that Aronofsky goes overboard, but that is typical for Aronofsky. I don’t think it mars the film but I can accept some of criticisms that he overdoes it.

    I think Aronofsky can overindulge his technical skills at times, but man, I was impressed by his shooting/editing of the night club sequence. I thought that was brilliant. And although I’m no ballet expert, the closing scenes from Swan Lake were really nicely constructed. It had little to do with the ballet itself and everything to do with Nina’s perception of herself, which is the key to the entire film.

  20. Sarah,I think “disturbingly brilliant” is my favorite 2 word review of Black Swan. Nicely done and thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked it!

    It’s interesting that you bring Ryder into the convo Pierre. I think of Portman, Kunis, Ryder, and Hershey’s characters all as part of a continuum different aspects of femininity, which ultimately is what the movie is all about. What I’m wondering is whether ***SPOILER*** Portman’s “death” at the end is to be taken literally or whether it was either the symbolic death of her virigin aspect or if it was looking forward to her flaming out eventually having achieved her dream like Ryder. ***END SPOILER****

    Joel, what struck me the second time I saw it was how the horror elements faded more to the background when they felt so strong the first time. I guess they were less shocking the 2nd time and I was prepared for them. They were still there for suspense and to highlight Portman’s state of mind, but really what grabbed me was Portman’s journey and her spectacular performance.

    Either way, it’s definitely more Polanski or Cronenberg than Eli Roth.

    I can’t believe this movie only cost $18 million.

  21. I agree with you, Joel. I think “slasher” was bandied about broadly (by me before I saw the film).

    More than once during these comments, the scene that came to my mind was The Birds when Hedren inexplicably ascends the stairs and opens the door only to be attacked by the birds. As we may know, Hitchcock put that in so it would be there — not because it made sense.

    Craig, my reading of the film is that what’s real and what’s not is not known. For example, (SPOILER), whether or not Portman actually discovers Cassel and Kunis having sexual intercourse is beside the point. I don’t think the audience ever knows for sure which developments are real — or exaggerations created in Nina’s mind — or not. So — although I never thought of it ’til you mentioned the Nina’s final moment — it’s quite valid to theorize that that moment isn’t real, either.

  22. It’s true you never really know for sure and I think that’s part of the draw of the early part of the film though ***spoiler*** I think 90% of what Nina experiences is her own sexual panic manifesting itself. as for the end, I kind of think she really did die – the rest of the cast is reacting to her as if she really is hurt – but I also think it has metaphorical value.

  23. I’m guessing she died, too. I can see the argument that it–like so much else that happens–isn’t really happening, but I feel like if the movie is going to parallel Swan Lake so completely, it has to end in that fashion, and she has to actually die. Interesting possibilities as a counterargument, though.

  24. ** spoiler ** Yes I believe it literally as well, I just think it also has thematic and metaphorical interest. To me it’s the death of an aspect of a personality more than the the death of a character.

  25. I’d like to see again the scenes between Portman and Ryder in the hospital. Let’s face it, I want to see the whole movie again.

  26. (SPOILERY): I was wondering afterwards if we can buy wholesale into any of the supporting characters either. At first, Nina’s mother comes across as a dragon lady but later in the picture it becomes clear that Nina is imposing her own perceptions on other people, so its hard to know where Nina’s psychosis ends and everyone else begins.

    I’m going to assume that the first half of the film is fairly representative of the supporting characters, but I’m also going to assume that much of the second half is up to your own interpretations of events.

    I’d agree with Josh’s take on the ending, although I think you’re right Craig that it could go either way.

  27. The thing is, right at the opening of the film it’s obvious Nina is starting to melt down and she catches a glimpse of Kunis from behind on the train and it kind of looks like Portman.

    I tend to think though that all the characters are real, it’s just how Nina perceives them that is skewed.

    Nina’s mom is especially interesting. I think there are definitely issues there, mother/daughter stuff, but the mom’s main sin is over-protectiveness and a little bit of the stage mother thing where she puts her daughters career in front of other important things. But she means well and a lot of what we see of her is an exaggeration filtered through Nina’s perceptions.

    The good news Pierre is I think the movie is just as good if not better the second time around. The first time you’re sort of wondering what’s real and what’s not, but the second time it’s easier just to focus on Nina’s arc and Portman’s performance.

  28. I’ve determined that what this articulate, interesting thread needs is more woman in it.

    Got to see Black Swan last night. Pretty much loved it, even if it is that ABBA song come to life. I’ll acknowledge it’s a little over the top, could have been dialed back a bit, but c’mon. Natalie Portman? Out of this world good. She fully embodies so many aspects of being a girl and turning into a woman, and each one of them she does masterfully, disturbingly well. Yes, they’re almost caricatures of the different facets of femininity, but it fits. When all the world’s a stage, everyone wears exaggerated masks. It works here, in the context of this one character and her fractured, struggling psychology and self-understanding. She’s pursuing a dream that forces her to relinquish almost her entire self-definition, and the person she’s been coddled into being. Portman does this with a naturalness and an effortless confidence at every turn that left my jaw on the floor.

    Mr. Jennybee didn’t care for the film nearly as much as I did, finding the writing and direction He heavy-handed and contrived, though he acknowledge Portman was very good. He also felt that (SPOILER) since he wasn’t fooled by the hallucinatory plot developments (because Nina had started out off-balance, thus ruining any drama), he found them contrived and just lame. My response to him was that I wasn’t fooled by them either, but I didn’t think we were supposed to be. It’s not about a Gotcha! moment for the audience, it’s about Nina’s own dawning self-awareness of what she’s going through, what she’s capable of. It’s the metaphorical made literal in her mind, the surreal usurping the real and the dark fantasy self buried deep within her forcing its way to the surface.

    I thought it was just gorgeous, beautiful cinema. Loved it. The dance scene with the black wings was one of my favorite cinematic moments of the year.

  29. I always knew Mr. Jennybee was a wise and super-intelligent man.

    LOL. Great and passionate defense here Jenny.

  30. Glad to finally get a female perspective on this film Jennybee. I thought it was quite a sensitive portrayal (from admittedly a male writing/directing perspective) of womanhood and I was surprised that certain feminist types were turned off by it.

    And yeah. Portman = awesome. I think even people who hate the movie have to admit that.

    Also, for the record, Mr. Jennybee thinks Piranha 3D is a good movie. Enough said I think.

  31. do you think… if Black Swan gets supporting nods at the Oscar, wouldn’t you think Hershey’s is more of a supporting cast than Kunis? Long shot, I know… but I felt Nina’s mother was more pivotal than Kunis’ character.

  32. I totally agree and I was a little disappointed with the OFCS that Kunis got in instead. Still, it gave Swan a leg up over TSN so I’m not complaining :)

  33. Huh, it’s funny… talking with people in the US, we usually get people fuzzing over how great and how TSN is marking a generation, yet with a chat with critics here in Peru, everyone’s more lukewarm about it.

    But then again, we did just get The White Ribbon as Let the Right One In this year… xD

    From the Top10 lists I’ve read from here, people liked Inception, TS3 and The Town better than TSN xD

  34. I liked TSN a lot, but I don’t think Fincher or Sorkin understand the generation they’re supposedly defining and I don’t think they were really trying to do that. They made a drama about a nerd overcoming the cool kids to make a billion dollars.

    Having said that, I liked TSN better than Inception, TS3 or The Town so I guess I just don’t fit in here or in Peru.

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