Black Swan Review


Black Swan represents the kind of ambitious, stylish filmmaking that’s easy to admire, tough to love, and impossible to forget. It’s a very visceral film that gets under your skin and stays there. Comparisons to director Darren Aronofsky’s last film—The Wrestler—are apt, though where that film was a quiet contemplation on a man dedicated to his craft, this one is bold, brash, and in your face. While the film goes over-the-top a few too many times, it’s still a tremendous achievement and worthy of all the praise it has earned.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) wants nothing more than to be named lead for her ballet company’s new rendition of Swan Lake. But while her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), recognizes her hard work and technical excellence as ideal for the role of the White Swan, her squeaky clean image and inability to lose herself in a role don’t seem like good fits for the Black Swan portion of the role. Still, he picks her in the hope that she’ll grow into the part. But as she sinks her teeth into the role, it seems Nina’s fragile psyche might not be able to handle it. She’s tormented by the idea that a fellow dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) is trying to replace her, and her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t do much to ground Nina. And as the line between reality and fantasy gets blurrier, it appears Nina may have found what she needed to bring out the Black Swan inside her, but at what cost?

Classifying Black Swan is tricky. There are definitely elements of horror (including some skin-crawling gore). It’s a trippy, psychological thriller, to be sure. But it’s also a character study in the dangers of giving too much of oneself to a craft. Nina is a perfectionist, and it takes a lot for her to give that up. But once she does, it seems she can’t—or doesn’t want to—reclaim herself.

Natalie Portman makes Nina one of 2010’s most vivid and memorable characters. This is the kind of performance that’s so eye-opening and balls-to-the-wall that the Academy has to take notice. Nothing is taboo for Portman, including getting very sexual with herself and Mila Kunis. She sells Nina’s frailty perfectly, never quite letting us know exactly how sane she is. She also does her own dancing, which is a very impressive feat in and of itself.

The supporting performances are also quite outstanding. Mila Kunis brings some much-needed energy the film’s slightly lagging middle-third. She oozes sexuality and is full of the Black Swan qualities Nina so desperately needs to find within herself. If a Best Supporting Actress nomination is in the cards this year, I’ll have absolutely no qualms. Barbara Hershey is a bit frightening as Nina’s mother, perhaps the most domineering film matron since Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Meanwhile, Vincent Cassel is twisted but manages to bring a bit of humor to the otherwise very heavy proceedings.

Black Swan has a very distinctive style, which serves the film perfectly. The cinematography is of the in-your-face, shaky-cam variety—and it’s probably the best cinematography of the year so far. The art direction and costumes are used almost solely to sell the film’s themes—everything is black and white, literally. Just watching the way Nina’s clothing changes over the course of the film is fascinating. All of these elements contribute to the film’s sense of claustrophobia, which is what makes the film so haunting.

The film ends on a very similar note as The Wrestler. On the whole, I think I preferred Aronofsky’s previous feature, though I think his direction here is gutsier. There are moments when Black Swan gets a little silly, but I think it might be the kind of film that improves on repeat viewings. I know I can’t wait to see it again, as it’s certainly unlike anything else in the marketplace right now, and I’m certainly eager to see what this masterful director pulls out of his hat next.

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