Friday, December 24, 2010

"Black Swan", The Movie Review

“Black Swan” is a feast for movie lovers; it’s original, audacious and beautiful. It is a film of opposites: light and dark, black and white, beauty and horror, innocence and passion. It is a dance film, a sinister psychological drama, and a look at the sacrifices an artist makes to create art. Above all, it is a glimpse of the world from the point of view of an intriguing young woman whose boundaries between fantasy and reality have disappeared.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s oft-told showbiz tale of an aspiring dancer, her controlling mother, a talented rival, and a seductive director, is filled with such brilliant imagery and movement, such mystery and range of meaning, that it is difficult to know how to approach it for a re-view. Days after seeing it I am still haunted by moments as vivid and difficult to describe as a fleeting nightmare in which the dreamer awakens terrified yet deeply sad.

There is something of the excitement and intrigue around this movie that film audiences must have experienced in 1971 when “A Clockwork Orange” was released. That film provided an electric counterpoint of searing images and beautiful music, which Aranofsky accomplishes here as well. Aranofsky’s preoccupation with the grotesqueness of the human body also calls to mind the films and early paintings of David Lynch.  I marveled at the film's detailed look at how far an artist will punish herself to attain perfection. This may be the most fascinating look at artistic creation and genius since "Amadeus".

On one level, “Black Swan” recreates the ballet “Swan Lake” in contemporary terms. Early in the film the Director, Tomas (Vincent Cassel) effectively describes for his company (and us) the tragedy of the innocent White Swan whose lover is seduced by the evil Black Swan.

The story pits Nina (Natalie Portman) against her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and a new member and rival (Mila Kunis) for the attentions of the demanding Tomas, who selects Nina for the dual role in his modernist version of the ballet. He likes her perfection and innocence as the White Swan, but requires her to go deep into her darker self, to literally "touch herself" in order to lose her perfection and become the great seductress the part requires. He wants her to let go.  And she does.

Thus begins Nina's descent into madness.  Portman's portrayal is all about her face and body...I don't remember her character in terms of dialog.  The camera holds her closely for most of the picture, and her beauty and ability to suggest subtle changes, from distress to arousal, compel us to watch her.

Natalie Portman is such an effective screen performer because she is not showy. She was so powerful in "Closer" because she was understated in a role that called for scenery-chewing.  She has a vulnerable side that I loved in "New York I Love You".  Here, one wonders at first why she doesn't manage to convey the sheer love of dancing that would make her character endure the physical and mental torture of such hard work.  But by the end it's clear that Portman knew exactly what she was doing, with Aronofsky's help.

And on yet another level, one may see Nina, her sexually charged rival Lily (Kunis), and her mother, as archetypes in a more interesting scheme. To see "Black Swan" this way helps a viewer accept the more horrific elements.  Something else is being driven at here... One feels it subliminally. 

It makes sense that we can't readily explain: the constant mirrored reflections, the startling breakage of her limbs, the terrifying changes to the texture of her skin, the bleeding, the portraits coming to malevolent life. We also feel her exhilaration during the dance sequences, (thanks to exquisite photography and editing) as the camera glides around her, and sweeps us vicariously around the stage. We seem to understand all of this, because many of us would lose ourselves, if we could, to make an ultimate artistic statement.

Some of these elements have an unusual beauty, as when Nina, dancing her triumphant finale as the Black Swan, slowly becomes covered in black plumage as she spins.  There is also some shocking violence, which would not be out of place in a modern-day horror film. But this cannot be called a thriller in the conventional sense.  The dualities, the opposites, the seamless blend of backstage drama, sexual danger, and intimate psychodrama, point to another level that I argue is the deeper meaning the film seeks to create.

That is, that "Black Swan" is ultimately an expressionist statement about the trauma of growing up, that true artistry is possible only after one completes the physical and mental torments of reaching adulthood; once reached, one can never regain innocence.  This is not a new idea, but it artistically refashions this idea in a wholly new way. The film uses its images to suggest, in an extreme way, the adolescent excitement and terror of physical change, of sexual initiation, of imperfection, of losing control.  It also suggests the panic of artistic failure, and of the need to achieve success at all costs.

By the final segment, as Nina's ultimate sacrifice is made, as her mother in the audience bids a silent tearful goodbye, as the blood suggests the attainment of womanhood, and as the indescribable beauty of Tscaikovsky's music swells to the fade-to-white, I was in tears.

After a few minutes, I realized that it was the child in Nina, lost forever, that I mourned.  My reaction to "Black Swan" was the culmination of a slowly building realization of Nina's fate, which paid off in a powerful final image and line of dialog. 

It didn't matter in a literal sense what was real and what was fantasy.  All of the elements worked to produce a savage and breathtaking, tragic coming-of-age story, and like all great coming-of-age stories, there is a cathartic release.

Kunis is surprisingly good in a small but potent role, keeping us guessing if she is really good-hearted, or if she is in fact evil...or, maybe even, Portman's own fantasy alter-ego.  A middle sequence in a nightclub is some of the most exciting filmmaking on movie screens right now, and Kunis' presence maintained considerable heat, as it does in the (understandably) much-discussed love scene with Portman.  Hershey is convincing as the infantilizing mother, furnishing her daughter's room in pink and stuffed animals, desperately maintaining the fortress of her daughter's chastity. Cassel is brilliant, I think . At no point did I ever not believe him as Tomas. And Winona Ryder accounts for much of the film's high drama as the spurned and injured former star.

A viewer may feel in a  fevered state throughout "Black Swan"; some may reject its spiraling fantasy, others will be bored or shocked.  It's a difficult film to recommend outright.  I loved it selfishly, like I wanted it to belong only to me, and would not share it with anyone.

On the other hand, I hope you do take a chance.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Agree 100%, saw it a week ago and I'm still trying to think of what to write about it. You put it perfectly, with an insight that I lack (seriously, it would never occur to me to look at that blood as symbolic of womanhood...brilliant). Having grown up among dancers, theatre people, and "showbiz moms", I've seen people obsess like Nina...not to that extent, but give 'em a couple of years and maybe. Fantastic write-up!

  2. Yes it is well worth seeing. I can't wait to go back for a second time!
    Walter, I thought your review of the film was excellent, with great insights. I will comment soon