Film Review – Black Swan

In his latest film, director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler) creates a psychoactive, sexual thriller that, like his previous films, taps into the raw emotion of human obsession.  Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina who lives with her aging ballerina mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey).  Nina dances for a New York City ballet company and gets her big shot as the lead in a new rendition of Swan Lake, a role that requires her to play both the good White Swan, and the bad Black Swan.  Unfortunately for Nina, her natural disposition is that of the White—timid, socially awkward, and sexually repressed—while the Black seems to be embodied by a new dancer who’s just moved from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis), who’s seductive, carefree, and assertive.  The director of the ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is a nudging guide, urging Nina to let go and explore the Black Swan inside, using Lily as example.  Nina begins an obsession with Lily that leads to her exploration of her own sexual repression, but quickly turns to paranoia and rivalry.  Striving for technical perfection, the extents to which Nina will go in order to embody the Black Swan send her into a state of existence she’s never known before.

If there is one thing I think most critics can agree on, it’s the fact all of Aronofsky’s films can be categorized as emotionally abrasive.  The theme of obsession is repeated if only to be examined from various perspectives, from the mathematical quest for the secret pattern of existence in Pi, to attempting to find a cure for death in The Fountain, to an aging performer who refuses to quit because he knows or cares for very little besides his profession in The Wrestler.  Aronofsky’s stories combined with his sense of storytelling make for a resonating experience.  Black Swan is no departure from this familiar emotional core.  Visually, though, Aronofsky has forgone the expressively asserting style he employed in his earlier films and instead adopts a more matter-of-fact, almost documentary feel that was used in The Wrestler.  This creates more room for the actors and the atmosphere to coexist in a unique form of tension.  As paranoia descends upon Nina, the film delves down dark, horrific paths, where Aronofsky makes use of the full breadth of cinema to take the audience on a thrilling ride, one that, unlike most, leaves you thinking, peeling away at the dense layers of character behavior, symbolism and mystery.

Natalie Portman gives what I feel is the finest performance of her career so far.  Her transformation from a fragile character, obsessed with perfection and restricted in emotion by the overbearing guidance of her mother, to the embodiment of her desires is so slight and restrained, yet so full of honesty, when it does occur it creates one of the film’s most exciting, breathtaking moments.  It reminds you afterward what great acting is all about.  In fact, every performance in the film is both exact and natural.  Mila Kunis plays her character as if already inhabiting the role of the Black Swan.  Her seductive and playful nature has a backbone of danger and deception, one that never goes over the top in any direction.  Then there is Barbara Hershey’s fitting portrayal of Erica, as both frightening and sympathetic, symbolic to her counterpart, the Queen.

From the opening sequence on, we are infused with imagery and character development that mirrors that of Swan Lake.  Everything from the environments to the wardrobe to the characters themselves is a deeper representation of this projection.  To further represent this, the characters embody duality.  Thomas Leroy is both sexually menacing and seductively kind.  He is strong and encouraging in the way a teacher should be, but he’s also someone you never feel comfortable trusting; exploitation is an inherent character trait.  Lily is both conniving and sincere.  Then there is the character of Beth Macintyre, the Aging Swan (Winona Ryder), whose disposition toggles between tragic and scorned.  This is where the film is at its most intelligent—there is an echo of mythology greater than just this telling of the story, that reverberates into the subconscious.

Perhaps the best aspect of the film derives from the paranoid delusional state that Nina succumbs to.  Expanding on the visual motif of duality, the film begins to attack what Nina, and the audience, question as real.  Are those scars on her back from her scratching herself out of neurosis, or is something supernatural going on?  Is Nina imaging entire situations, or are the people she knows deceiving her?  While the answers are there, they are not spelled out in dialogue, but delivered via visual cues.  The tension begins to compound on the deteriorating fabric of Nina’s existence, leaving the viewer’s nerves wrecked in the process.  This effect is the result of a filmmaker that understands the strengths of the medium.

The crescendo of the film’s pieces ties together with Clint Mansell’s thrilling, operatic score. Like everything else in the movie, the music mirrors the orchestration of Swan Lake, capturing the melodrama in its emotionally fluctuating notes. People who are not fans of this style of music and its place as a storytelling device will probably find it at times too bombastic and overt. However, in this context, the score is precisely what the film calls for. It captures the mood, atmosphere, and emotion that a story surrounding a ballet should. Does this mean you should love or even really like ballet to enjoy this movie? I do not believe so.  I have never held any particular interest in ballet. As a movie lover and a fan of stories in general, I find the execution of a story inside a story represented via a very passionately base human expression like dancing to be fascinating visually, emotionally, and mentally; and here it is captured in a fantastic, exhilarating, movie experience. With Black Swan, Aronofsky orchestrates a rare balanced collaboration of all the necessary elements to achieve what I feel just may be a perfect film. This is definitely in my top two movies of the year so far, and I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of awards talk surrounding it come Oscars time.

Final Grade: A+


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

Follow him on Twitter or email him.

View all posts by this author