Monday, December 6, 2010

Movie Review: Black Swan

Black Swan ****
Directed By:
Darren Aronofsky.
Written By: Mark Heyman & Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre).

In the films of Darren Aronofsky, the characters mental state is directly tied to their physical well being. Whether it’s Randy the Ram Robinson in The Wrestler, trying desperately to hold onto his past glory, and deciding he doesn’t want to go on if his body can’t keep up with him, or the mathematician in Pi, obsessing about a formula until he has to get it out of his head, or everyone in Requiem for a Dream, deteriorating physically and mentally because of drug use, his characters are, perhaps more than most other directors, aware of their bodies (The Fountain floats somewhere outside of this, much like Hugh Jackman in that bubble, which is perhaps why although The Fountain is his most ambitious film, it is also the most problematic).

This is true of his new film, Black Swan, as well about a ballerina (Natalie Portman) obsessing about being able to play both the White and Black Swans in Swan Lake – she is innocent and fragile enough to do the white one in her sleep – but lacks the sexual prowess for the black one. But she is determined to get it right – and will do anything to achieve this goal. Like all of his films, Black Swan is a technical marvel. If The Wrestler was Aronofsky at his most stripped down and raw – than Black Swan brings him back to the grandiose style of The Fountain or Requiem for a Dream. For some, I know this is off putting – and Aronofsky will certainly be accused of going over the top by some – but for me, his style perfectly matches his subject. His has made a film that is part The Red Shoes, and part Carrie – a body horror movie reminiscent of David Cronenberg.

Portman gives what could be the performance of the year as Nina Sayers. She is a young ballerina who has been with a company in New York for years – always in the background, because their star is Beth (Winona Ryder). But, Beth is getting older, and director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has decided he needs someone younger - more vital and sexual – for the lead in his new production of Swan Lake. Nina is an obvious choice because of her skill and dedication. The problem is, she is so uptight and uncomfortable about sex – and can never give the Black Swan that lust that is required to do the role properly. But Thomas gives her the role anyway (after she bites him when he kisses her) – and he pushes her well past her limit.

The two other major characters in the movie are Lily (Mila Kunis) and Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey). Hershey probably watched Brian DePalma’s Carrie, and Piper Laurie’s great performance, in order to prepare for this one. She had her career ruined by having Nina in the first place, and he is alternately jealous of Nina’s success and way over protective – trying to shield Nina for all those nasty boys and their libidos. When Thomas asks Nina if she is a virgin, it is a legitimate question, and one I don’t think we can answer with any real certainly. Lily is Nina’s opposite – a sexual being if there ever was one – she even has black swan wings tattooed on her back. She is not the technical dancer Nina is, but she moves with such sexuality, that she maybe better for the role.

How much of what we see in Black Swan is real and not is open to debate. The entire movie is told from Nina’s point of view – the camera often follows directly behind her head (bringing to mind recent Dardenne brothers movies) as if it really wants to get inside and figure out what is going on. As the movie progresses, and Nina falls deeper into her delusional mind, the film takes increasingly brazen breaks from reality. What is real and what isn’t doesn’t really matter though – because it is all real to Nina. She is the center of the film, and the other characters revolve around her – defined by the way Nina interprets them. This is a risky, brilliant performance by Portman, who we genuinely feel for at the beginning of the film, and then follow her down into insanity by the end. Everyone looks at Nina with a mixture of cruelty and sexuality. Vincent Cassel does an excellent job at being unreadable as Thomas – a man who seems to want to scream at Nina and screw her at the same time. Lily is jealous of Nina, and yet looks at her with the same lust – a darker, more dangerous sexuality that hints at Nina’s true desires. Even Hershey as her mother is tied to her sexuality – so much so that Nina cannot even please herself without her mother popping into her mind. The supporting cast in brilliant, yet Portman is the center of the movie.

The film really does call to mind Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler. Both are movies about people whose jobs depend on their bodies, which are in danger of failing them. But while as The Wrestler was a pretty straight forward movie, brilliantly executed, but straight forward nonetheless – Black Swan is a more complex film – one that charts the odysseys of the main character as she descends into madness and despair. It is one of the year’s very best films.


  1. I like seeing Natale Portman in this movie who gives a stunning, almost shockingly good performance.

  2. I disagree with the part on Thomas wanting to screw her. He was only trying to bring out the sexuality in her.