A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2010
2010, R, 108 mins.
2010, R, 108 mins.
Nina/White Swan: Natalie Portman /
Lily/Black Swan: Mila Kunis /
Thomas: Vincent Cassel /
Erica/Queen: Barbara Hershey /
Beth/Dying Swan: Winona Ryder
To simply call Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN a chronicle of the rigors of professional ballet would be woefully misleading. The film is more of a hallucination…a brutal nightmare…dealing with its main character’s nosedive descent into debilitating madness.
fact that she is a dancer is almost a cursory point: BLACK SWAN brazenly
consumes viewers for how it’s a devastatingly intense, psychologically
horrific, and hauntingly operatic portrait of a young woman whose
childhood, passive aggressive mother, and own guileless and naïve
ambition slowly propels her towards a ferociously psychotic break from
channels the lurid and startling works of Cronenberg, De Palma, and
Polanski and delicately sprinkles it, yes, with the schlocky melodramatic
extremes of SHOWGIRLS all to create a mesmerizing masterpiece of the
macabre and absurd. I’ve
never quite seen anything like it.
main story contained within – from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres
Heinz, and John McLaughlin, based on a previously unrealized screenplay by
Aronofsky – has many familiar elements that we have seen before when it
comes to back-stage, behind-the-scenes dramas about female performance
artists: we have the bitter rivalries; the fierce artistic ambition
that overcomes all other imperatives; the heated cat-fights; the
pretentious and dictatorial male director with vile and duplicitous
motives; and a climatic stage presentation that sort of echoes the
mindsets of the players behind the scenes.
Yet, Aronofsky is not interested in these elements that make up so
many other forgettable dramas; he’s more intrigued with the inner
obsession and fractured personality caught within this basic storyline. The juxtaposition that he offers here is compelling and
deliciously grotesque: he presents the grace and beauty of ballet on top
of the horrors of one performer gradually letting her passion for the art
form drive her mad. BLACK
SWAN is both oddly beautiful and sickeningly creepy, and it is to Aronofsky’s
venerated credit that he pulls of this dichotomy with such a raw
Sayers (in the most unflinching, provocative, and complete performance of
her career by Natalie Portman) is like an innocent, sexually repressed
young girl trapped in an adult body that has not yet emotionally matured. She is a talented New York dancer that is technically
proficient, but lacks a necessary emotional component that would allow her
to really shine. She has a
porcelain-like complexion and beauty to go with her talent, but she
nonetheless strives for the pinnacle of perfection.
While on this personal journey towards her professional dream she
is ruled over by her frantically loving mother (a remarkably secure
Barbara Hershey) that still pampers and treats her like an infant, which
may have a lot to do with Nina’s tepidness and fragility.
Nina has an eating disorder and a lifelong history with body
disturbance issues (she scratches herself to the point of spilling blood),
which makes her mother that much more of a zealous control freak in her
wants only one thing that is seemingly far from her grasps: the coveted
role of the Swan Queen in a wicked re-imagining of the SWAN LAKE ballet by
the revered – but authoritative and intimidating – Thomas Leroy
(Vincent Cassel, so effortlessly repellent and slimy here).
The ballet itself requires a very tricky and taxing dual role: one
must portray the good and pure White Swan as well as the sultry and
oppressive visage of the Black Swan.
Nina is more than capable of pulling off the former, but it is with
the latter where she suffers, something that is revealed in her initial
tryout that climaxes with the harshly frank criticisms of Leroy.
The sly and conniving director knows that he will have to push a
proper dual performance out of Nina to get the results both he and she
require, but just how far will she have to go?
initially failing to get the role, Nina has a teary-eyed confrontation
with Leroy that leads to him hitting on her behind closed doors. She resists and bites his tongue, and when she leaves she
thinks she has lost her chance for the role, but to her surprise it is her
tough resistance to Leroy that made him want her for the part.
However, even with Nina securing the role of her dreams, she
becomes plagued with insecurity when the Titanic-sized expectations of
Leroy for the ballet are difficult for her to meet.
She becomes traumatized by the fact that her predecessor, Beth
(played well in a small role by Wionna Ryder) had a huge fall from grace
in terms of her professional career and her romantic entanglements with
Leroy. Compounding this is
the appearance of another intrepid and head-strong ballerina named Lily
(Mila Kunis) that is everything Nina is not: intensely assured, spunky,
outgoing, and sexually liberated, which makes her just right for the dual
role. With insurmountable
pressures building, Nina slowly begins to unravel: she suffers from horrid
hallucinations and nightmares that reach a boiling point when her grasp of
fantasy and reality seems to have eroded altogether.
sheer luridness and frightening undertones of Nina’s spiritual
disentanglement is reiterated brilliantly by Aronofsky’s sparse, but
evocative aesthetic style: instead of shooting the backstage world of
professional dancers with a bright and cheery palette, he opts to utilize
a dark, grainy, desaturated, and unsightly film stock, which just
heightens the film’s suggestion of morose unease.
It would have also been enticing to shoot the individual dance
pieces themselves with a lovely elegance, but Aronofsky employs loose,
bobbing and weaving, fly-on-the-wall hand-held camera work that swirls in and out of the dance choreography to give it fluidity, but it
also reflects the yo-yo effect of Nina’s paranoia, jealousy, and
escalating psychosis. Aside
from the bravura cinematography and shooting style, BLACK SWAN is a film
that begs to be heard on multiple viewings: just listen to
the sonic landscape that echoes discretely in the background.
The audible sound of bird vocals and wings flapping are spliced in
with a raucously operatic score by Clint Mansell and all of this makes BLACK
SWAN reflect Nina’s cruel break from reality.
When the film finally reaches its finale that involves a
transfixing and potent presentation of SWAN LAKE with Tchaikovsky’s
music accompanying Aronofsky’s gloriously ghastly visuals, BLACK SWAN
becomes a climatic and complex orchestration of chaos and terror.
Portman has given many great and memorable performances (like early child
roles in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL and
BEAUTIFUL GIRLS to her Oscar nominated turn in CLOSER
and her undervalued work in GARDEN STATE
and V: FOR VENDETTA), but she has
never approached the dark depths of her craft as she does here in BLACK
SWAN. Her performance is
startling on two levels: (1) the technically mastery she
demonstrates here as a dancer is extraordinary (she trained for a year to
effectively and plausibly look and pull off the part of a ballerina) and
(2) her eerie, animalistic, and erotically charged transformation to a
twitchy, schizophrenic cauldron of anxiety, fear, and dismay is what will
really have Oscar voters fixated later next year. She has never so thoroughly inhabited a persona so tortured,
so damaged, and so scarily compelling on so many levels. BLACK SWAN is a towering verification of Portman’s skills,
oftentimes which are overlooked.
other towering star of BLACK SWAN is, yes, Aronofsky himself.
Has there been another recent director that has so radically and
victoriously altered his career trajectory as he has? Early successes like Pi and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM prefaced
2006’s THE FOUNTAIN, which I placed on
the Ten Worst Films list for that year and called it “one of the most
…impressive misfires in a long time.”
Yet, he defied even my overriding doubts about his career with his
astonishing rebound effort in 2008’s THE
WRESTLER, which redefined him as a directorial force to be
reckoned with. BLACK SWAN
seems like the perfect companion piece to that film, although they could
not be any different (one’s about ballet and the other is about pro-wrestling).
Yet, Aronofsky’s last two films share one theme: tragically flawed
personalities that drive themselves to fervent extremes for the profession
they love to the point where it leads to their personal downfall and
annihilation. BLACK SWAN
takes that theme to a whole other warped level by immersing it in a
mind-altering psychological horror film.
will find BLACK SWAN too darkly inaccessible or full-bloodedly
theatrically to sit through (this is not an enjoyable or upbeat film), but
it’s the film’s ethereal flourishes and purposely flamboyant eccentricities
that make it one of
2010’s most visually arresting and dramatically memorable motion