Originally published on the old Cinewise blog on 15th December 2010.
Directed by the talented but persistently depressing Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream), Black Swan is a psycho-sexual thriller about a ballerina pushed to the brink of madness, only to look back and realize she’d crossed that line long ago. Heavily dramatized and thematically blunt, it is a powerful exploration of the strive for perfection, and the casualties of life often found in its wake.
The perfectionist in question is appropriately embodied by Natalie Portman, who dropped 20 pounds from her already tiny frame and trained for a year in preparation for the part. It was worth it – you’ll hear a lot about her performance as the awards season develops.
Her Nina is a star in the making, an obsessive worker who’s sacrificed boys, independence and all other things “life” for her ballerina dream. She lives in a tiny NYC apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a ballerina burnout who never quite made it. But now Nina’s on the cusp of doing what Mommy never did, and winning the role all the jealous dancers covet.
One such dancer is Lily (Mila Kunis), a flawed but natural talent with the confidence company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) sees as necessary for the lead role in his latest production of Swan Lake, in which the naïve White Swan must transform into the dark and dangerous Black Swan. Nina’s got the White Swan down cold – this film is about her transformation into the black.
And boy does Aronofsky bang that nail in.
Black Swan feeds on thematic context, its production cluttered with white/black juxtapositions, volatile sexual confrontations and Freudian characterizations. Its ideas are proverbial, its arguments loud and pronounced. Aronofsky’s never been one for subtlety, and he isn’t going to start here.
But in Swan his meticulous enthusiasm for dramatics feels particularly appropriate – his film is a translation of ballet, after all, and works heavily off of Swan Lake’s somber tragedy. I’ll never claim to be an expert on ballet (or any form of dancing), but I’m told the dance aspect of the film is very strong, and the dancers very talented.
Portman does a lot of that dancing herself, and that isn’t even the most impressive aspect of her performance. Neurotic and ambitious, she’s a finely designed glass figure, fragile, beautiful and easily broken. Somewhere the first crack has already appeared, and over the film it spreads. It’s always fun to watch a talented actor break slowly into madness, putting their knack for gravitas on full display. But Portman’s performance is equally as strong before the fall – tightly wound or cutting loose, she’s frighteningly good.
It’s been a good year for ensemble acting, and in Swan all the players are strong. Kunis plays reckless with natural charm, and Cassel’s all but cornered the “dangerously charismatic” market (see: 2005’s Derailed, and definitely see 1995’s La Haine). Hershey and Winona Ryder are tragic as fallen dancers, pushed aside by the harsh demands of their unforgiving art form.
Ultimately, the art form is the real star of this show – the beauty and power of the dancing, and the people who both cherish and fall victim to the profession.
Black Swan is an ode to both, a devastating but stunning effigy.
This movie is meant to screw with you, to keep you guessing, keep you questioning, and to keep you on edge. It is a challenging blend of the real and the sureal. It is not necessarily a pleasant experience, but it is engrossing and impressive, and ultimately one of the years finest, most purposeful films.