Fox // 2010 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // April 11th, 2011
Once upon a time, director Darren Aronofsky had an idea to make a movie about a wrestler who falls in love with a ballerina. That ambitious idea eventually became two separate movies: 2008's The Wrestler, about an aging fighter who sacrifices his body to stay in the ring, and 2010's Black Swan, about a mentally unstable dancer who cracks under the pressure of her first starring role.
Black Swan draws inspiration from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, but it's not really a ballet movie. Like The Wrestler, it's about a performer who goes too far to hold on to the spotlight. Ballerina Nina Sayers risks her health and her sanity to achieve perfection onstage. The closer she comes to "losing herself" in the role, the closer she comes to losing her mind. It's a chilling fable about art and passion -- brought to life by Aronofsky's attention to detail and a career-defining performance by Natalie Portman.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, The Darjeeling Limited) is a dancer whose world is filled with unrelenting pressure and unfair expectations -- from her peers, her mother (Barbara Hershey, Hannah and Her Sisters), and her ballet company's narcissistic director (Vincent Cassel, Mesrine: Killer Instinct). After the company's star dancer (Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands) steps aside, Nina is cast as the lead in Swan Lake. It's a grueling role that requires her to play not only the virginal White Swan but also the uninhibited Black Swan. Her transformation from rigid White to sensual Black is made even more difficult when a free-spirited new dancer (Mila Kunis, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) sets her sights on Nina, and the starring role.
Whatever controversies have emerged since the Oscars, Natalie Portman didn't win Best Actress for Black Swan for doing all her own dancing. She won because of everything she does in between pliés. Although Portman's performance might seem one-note up until her startling transformation at the end of the movie, she's always in control. Portman's Nina crackles with nervous energy. She's an overwound spring ready to snap, a delicate china cup teetering on the edge of a table. When she finally cracks, it's one of the most unnerving and satisfying descents into madness ever committed to film.
Nina lives in a state of arrested development. Her room is sweetshop pink, seemingly unchanged from when she was twelve years old. She's a little girl trapped in a woman's emaciated body (already skinny, Portman's months of training to prepare for the movie left her near-skeletal). Her self-image is little more than a reflection of the hypercritical authority figures in her life. Company director Thomas Leroy -- played by French actor Vincent Cassel -- represents the destructive side of art. He's more than willing to sacrifice Nina to fulfill his creative vision. Her mother -- played by Barbara Hershey -- is as bad, if not worse because her manipulation is presented as love. She treats her daughter like a toy ballerina mounted in one of her music boxes, pushing Nina to be the star she never was. Hershey's character is the hardest to decipher. At times she seems to act in Nina's best interest, but there's a disturbing undercurrent to her attention. There are even suggestions of physical and sexual abuse. Since Aronofsky and writer Mark Heyman don't provide much backstory, we can't tell for sure where Nina's instability comes from. All we can do is watch her unravel.
Although she is billed as Portman's co-star, Mila Kunis's contributions to Black Swan are easy to overlook. Winona Ryder has the least screen time, but Kunis has the most thankless role. Part foil and part antagonist, Lily is important only in the way she contrasts with Nina. It might seem like Kunis isn't doing much acting, but her sensuality is as critical to the film as Portman's frigidity. She makes it look easy, and that's why she's so good.
Darren Aronofsky shoots this film like a documentary instead of a ballet movie. He puts the camera right up in actors' faces, creating an uncomfortable intimacy, especially when they dance. There are close-ups of slippered feet and Portman dancing from the shoulders up, but full-body angles are rare. By placing the audience in the middle of the action, he interrupts the clean lines and fluid movements that make ballet beautiful. Divorced from that context, Nina's pursuit of perfection looks not only desperate, but ugly.
By the end of the movie, Black Swan is more thriller than character drama. The scares start out as psychological, but grow to a fever pitch of bloody and grotesque hallucinations. It takes a while to ramp up, but when Nina's breakdown hits high gear, Black Swan is as chilling as any horror movie.
The special effects are more unsettling because of the movie's realistic style. The subtle scares are the most effective -- quick shots of weirdness poking into the real world. The more obvious the effects, the more the seams show. Still, Black Swan is exceptionally well-crafted. The film lacks the polish of a big-budget production, but Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique push the mix of grainy 16mm and special effects into creepy places that keep the audience off-balance. The 2.40:1 DVD transfer is just as unassuming. It's not the most beautiful image out there, but it is effective.
Like the visuals, the Dolby 5.1 surround, front-heavy mix comes across as disappointing at first. Instead of engulfing the viewer in a soundscape, the rear speakers are quiet except for key moments, when some audio cue or faint scuttling pops in from behind to startle you. It's a gusty move, and it pays off. Even if you think the audio lacks sizzle, you won't be disappointed by longtime Aronofksy collaborator Clint Mansell's score. Although much of the music is based on Tchaikovsky (which disqualified the score from being nominated for an Oscar), Mansell twists the classical motifs to fit the film. His score is bombastic, theatrical, and chilling.
Although the Black Swan Blu-ray has additional bonus features, the DVD has the longest and most interesting one. "Metamorphosis" is a three-part, 49-minute overview of the filmmaking process -- including Aronofsky's original inspiration for the story, behind-the-scenes footage in New York City and at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase, a fascinating look at the special effects, and interviews with the director, DP, and others. It's not the most thorough making-of documentary, but what it lacks in information, it makes up for in style.
Black Swan is a very different black and white movie. Although elements of the plot are familiar, Aronofsky combines the spectacle, story, and performance of theater with the intimacy of film to create something bold and new. The swan isn't an endangered species, but movies this unique certainly are.
Not guilty! Though Nina should probably seek professional help.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cinematic Review