Fox // 2010 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // March 29th, 2011
Let's start by acknowledging the elephant in the room. Black Swan is a love it or hate it film. You either bought in Darren Aronofsky's twisted fantasy/reality, or you didn't. And that's okay. Movies are not one size fits all. We all bring different baggage and preconceptions into the theater and leave with wildly different interpretations. That's what makes film, like any art form, so compelling. In less capable hands, this could have easily been a ham-fisted, direct-to-DVD psychological thriller. Thanks to Aronofsky and his team, it's a Grimm fairy tale for the modern age.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, Thor) is a promising young dancer in a ballet company that's losing its aging and embittered prima ballerina (Winona Ryder, Frankenweenie). With one of the most coveted roles in Swan Lake ripe for the taking, Nina is hoping for a chance to prove herself. But being top-of-the-heap requires more than a little girl's wishes it were so. This isn't just art for art's sake. This is a cutthroat business and Thomas, the company's artistic director (Vincent Cassel, Mesrine: Killer Instinct), needs a star who will pack the house. To stack the deck and fuel competition, he brings in a sultry free spirit from San Francisco (Mila Kunis, Friends with Benefits). The new blood stirs something deep within Nina, something she doesn't understand nor is able to control. What results is the evolution of an artist who may prove to be truly great...if she can handle the pressure and get out of her own way.
I first saw Black Swan under what may be the least ideal of situations; home sick with bronchial pneumonia, watching a Screen Actor's Guild screener via iTunes on my 13 inch MacBook laptop. And yet, by the time it ended, I was so engrossed with the picture the circumstances of the audio/video quality had no impact whatsoever. You can't say that about many films.
Now, I'm going to stop short of saying too much about the story, as this is one of those films you need to experience with as little knowledge as possible going into it. The thrill is watching it unfold while taking in all the ambience, and for a low budget ($13 Million) picture shot gorilla-style over 43 days in the dead of a New York winter, there's a lot to absorb. If you are one of those who buys into what it's selling, Black Swan is a film you'll want to revisit several times to appreciate all the layered nuances.
Like Hitchcock and Kubrick before him, Aronofsky is part of a select group of filmmakers who thrive in exploring the depths of damaged human psyches. Many have attempted it, but most lose themselves in insincerity and cheese. Unfortunately, the film's initial marketing strategy didn't do him any favors, portraying Black Swan as a Single White Female set in the intense world of dance. That couldn't be further from the truth. If anything, what we wind up seeing play out is a deeply disturbing struggle akin to what may or may not have been going on inside the mind of Psycho's Norman Bates -- two sides of the same coin, each fighting for dominant control. Whereas Norman's uncontrollable desires lead him to murder, Nina's lead to self-destruction.
"David...Would you f*ck that girl? No...Nina, your dancing is just as frigid as you are."
Nina is like the dancer in a music box, the idyllic ballerina -- perfect presentation, precision movement, flawless to a fault. And that's just it. There are no surprises. No moments of sublime inspiration. No passion. No soul. What's more, she's a little girl in a woman's body, emotionally and socially retarded. And yet, no matter how hard her mother may have worked to preserve her "sweet girl," one cannot stem the tide of human development. Nina's own subconscious is fighting its way out of this prison. Whether it be little things, like stealing items from the dressing room of the company's aging star, catching glimpses of an alternate self in the film's omnipresent reflective surfaces, or being seduced by the uninhibited freedom of the troupe's newest member, the true Nina will emerge. It's only a matter of time. The question is, what will be the cost?
"That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around."
For all the acclaim Natalie has received for her performance, she is only as good as her supporting cast and crew. Vincent Cassel is magnificent in the role as Thomas. It is he who initially fans the flames of Nina's consuming fire. His push is counterbalanced by the pull of Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother Erica, herself an unfulfilled (and emotionally unstable) former dancer living vicariously through her daughter. And when that's not enough to unleash her true self, Mila Kunis steps in as Lily and opens a Pandora's Box that lashes us to the front of a psychological roller coaster for the rest of the picture.
What I love most about an Aronofsky picture is the complete universe we're drawn into. The characters are whole and psychologically rich, the usual heavy-handed filmmaking tricks and traps are practically non-existent, and you rarely (if ever) see the production seams. Yes, there are one or two moments in Black Swan where you'll say "Oh please...that's going a step too far," but in hindsight (taken as a whole) they're part of the overall tapestry. From Thérèse DePrez' striking production design and Amy Westcott's lush costuming, to Clint Mansell's underplayed score and Look FX's subtle CGI work, this is a picture worth more than three times its budget. That in itself is a major accomplishment in today's Hollywood.
Speaking of which, let's lift the curtain on one thing before we wrap this up. I've been in this business long enough to smell a manufactured controversy. The week before Black Swan's release on DVD and Blu-ray, dancer and body double Sarah Lane allegedly raised a stank surrounding the amount of dance work Natalie actually performed on screen versus what she was credited with. Of course the media latched onto this like a breastfeeding infant, and suddenly everyone was talking about the movie again. Laying to rest the story on the day before its home video release, Aronofsky released a statement which read "Here is the reality. I had my editor count shots. There are 139 dance shots in the film. 111 are Natalie Portman untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math that's 80% Natalie Portman. Even so, if we were judging by time, over 90% would be Natalie." One of the featurettes in the bonus materials details the motion capture and subsequent facial/head replacement done to make it appear as if you were seeing Natalie in every shot. The craftsmanship is astounding and Sarah may in fact be upset she didn't receive the credit she deserved. Somewhere in between these two stories lies the truth, but just know that marketing/PR people scour every angle (no matter how obscure) to generate interest in the product they're promoting. They've certainly achieved their objectives here.
Presented in 2.40:1, MPEG-4, 1080p high definition Blu-ray with DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound, the average home video enthusiast might come away disappointed with the look and feel of their BD purchase. What you need to realize is that the picture was shot specifically to appear this way. The choice to ground the picture in a gritty documentary style (cinéma vérité, if you will) pays off in spades, even if the colors are washed and muted, the grain is heavy (especially in low light), and the surround speakers are woefully underutilized. If nothing else, this serves the story by challenging your senses between what is real and what is not. I had much more respect for this choice the second time through. So if you're questioning the scoring of the review, now you know why.
You'll also understand my disappointment in the supplemental materials being offered. The home video community has long had an issue with Twentieth Century Fox and their decisions in this arena. I've attended more than a few junkets where the press corps has loudly voiced their displeasure and that of their viewers/readers/listeners. And Black Swan certainly won't silence any of those complaints. What we have here is a disjointed collection of EPK (electronic press kit) featurettes, heavy on the repetition, and leaving us wanting to know more. Granted, Aronofsky is one of those guys who feels his work speaks for itself, and you'll get no argument from me. I just feel this release could have used a little more forethought.
Black Swan Metamorphosis (49 min) -- Multi chapter documentary capturing the process of making the film. Concept born of Darren reading Dotstovsky's "The Double" and seeing a performance of Swan Lake at the Met when the light bulb went off. 43 day shoot in the dead of winter. Mix of raw on set footage, finished film clips, and interviews with cast/crew. Not a complete narrative feature, but fascinating nonetheless.
Ballet (3 min), Production Design (4 min), Costume Design (4 min), Natalie (3 min), Darren (3 min), -- Standard EPK featurettes, featuring confessional style interviews interspersed with B-Roll and film clips. By the end, you'll be sick of seeing the same handful of cinematic moments.
Preparing for the Role (4 min), Dancing with the Camera (2 min) -- Darren interviews Natalie on her dance background and the training required for the film.
Fox Movie Channel Presents -- EPK interviews with Darren (7 min), Natalie (6 min), Vincent (5 min), Barbara (4 min), Winona (2 min)
Digital Copy with Pocket Blu
BD-Live (including the trailer and highlights from the featurettes, e.g. more repetition)
Long story short...You're going to either love Black Swan or hate it. Even if you love it (as I did), you'll be disappointed with the release, though excited to be able to watch it through a second or third time. Films like these are few and far between. Enjoy them when they come around, because there's no telling how long we'll have to wait for the next one.
Brava La Prima!
Review content copyright © 2011 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy
* Cinema Verdict Review