Black Swan (United States, 2010)

December 01, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Black Swan Poster

Darren Aronofsky, who used the cheesiness of professional wrestling as the backdrop for a powerful, tragic character study, has moved behind the scenes of another kind of performance. One doesn't often think of ballet, with its graceful moves and untouchable sensuality, as a blood sport, but Aronofsky's perspective argues that rasslin' may not be that far removed from dancing. Black Swan is presented as a psychological thriller with a twist: the viewer's perspective is that of the lead character and her sanity is in doubt. As a result, the film's sense of reality is warped. Sorting fantasy, nightmare, and hallucination from what is real is likely to require multiple viewings and careful conjecture. Aronofsky has created a twisted piece of art - the kind of things that lovers of the "mind fuck" subgenre will delight in. Black Swan makes the contortions of Shutter Island and Inception seem facile by comparison.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an aspiring top ballerina. The role she wants more than any other is that of the Swan Queen in a re-imagining of the ballet Swan Lake by impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). However, while Nina's technical proficiency makes her the perfect choice for the White Swan, she lacks the spontaneity and seductiveness necessary for the Black Swan. A good fit for that role is Lily (Mila Kunis), a new transplant from San Francisco who oozes sexuality. Ultimately, Leroy selects Nina over Lily with the hope that his new top performer will grow into the role. But Nina is a psychological wreck. Not only is she paranoid that Lily is trying to undermine her, but she has a confrontation with Leroy's previous protégé, the damaged Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), and she lives under the thumb of a domineering, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina's attempts to get in touch with her darker side put pressure upon an already unstable psyche.

If Black Swan had been told from a neutral perspective, it might not be all that different from something along the lines of The Red Shoes (or Flashdance in a Tutu). However, by presenting the action from inside the fractured mind of the lead character, it has generated comparisons to some of Roman Polanski's early work (especially The Tenant and Repulsion). At times, Black Swan comes across as a psychological thriller, but it also contains elements of lurid melodrama and horror. And, although there is no nudity, the film's frank sexuality (which includes masturbation and a lesbian tryst) edges it toward soft-core erotica. Still, despite its many personalities, Black Swan is, at its heart, very much an art film - and a dark one, at that. It offers little in the way of concrete action or exposition and, even after a second or third watching, questions about what's real and what isn't remain. It would have been fascinating to see a Rashomon treatment to the story and understand events not only from Nina's perspective, but from that of Leroy and Lily, as well.

Although Aronofsky has designated Black Swan as a "companion piece" to The Wrestler, this feature is considerably more ambiguous than the earlier film, which dealt with a straightforward, albeit grim, reality. With the way in which he toys with viewer perceptions, the filmmaker references not only his blistering anti-drug effort, Requiem for a Dream, but also his feature debut, Pi. Like The Wrestler, this is in many ways a character piece, the difference here being the lack of distance and objectivity used in representing Nina and her world. There are plenty of clues that what we're seeing is badly skewed. Lily, for example, is inconsistently represented - the conniving rival, the brazen seductress, the hard-working ballerina with skill and passion but flawed technique. There are scenes in which the viewer senses he's observing the "real" Lily, but most of the time she is what Nina makes her into, and it's rarely pleasant.

It has been surmised that Natalie Portman will be a frontrunner for the 2011 Best Actress Oscar for her work in Black Swan, and the expectations are deserved. This is among the best examples of acting on Portman's resume, an instance in which she poured everything into the performance and allowed it to be transformative. Portraying Nina requires breadth and depth of emotion, and Portman never strikes a wrong chord. Although I was more moved by her efforts in Closer, this is the kind of risky and challenging endeavor often embraced by Academy voters. Additionally, the effort she put into a several-months' intense ballet training regimen pays off - Aronofsky indicated the only time he needed to employ a "dance double" was in wide shots. Most of Nina's dancing is performed by Portman and, while it's difficult to say she's flawless, she is better than merely "credible."

As Lily, Mila Kunis exhibits the capacity of playing more than featherweight roles in comedies and light dramas. Required by the narrative approach to embody two or three different characters (because of the way in which Lily is perceived), Kunis differentiates the personalities while maintaining a link between them. Her performance exists in the shadow of Portman's but, in its own way, it is as impressive. Meanwhile, Vincent Cassel, fresh off his turn in the epic Mesrine, is perfect as Leroy, adding a dash of the dark and edgy to his roguishly charming personality.

The look and feel of Black Swan, which captures the essence of a major New York ballet production, is one of Aronofsky's great successes. But it's not all about verisimilitude - something achieved not only through the tireless efforts of the actresses but through the director's study of real-life analogs. The cinematography is evocative, using odd angles and sharp contrasts between black and white, as well as incorporating shots that would be appropriate in any horror movie. Many scenes have a discordant feel, which is what one might expect from a movie representing this point-of-view.

As with The Wrestler, the ending of Black Swan is open to interpretation. It is not cut-and-dry. In comparing the two films - an approach Aronofsky invites - it's easy to see similarities in the characters' arcs, even though they are at different ends of the performance scale (ballet being "high art" and wrestling being "low art"). However, The Wrestler, as a traditional tragedy, evokes a more forceful emotional response. Black Swan is no less wrenching, but the storytelling method paradoxically holds the viewer apart from Nina while offering the intimacy of her perspective. Mind-fuck movies are often like this, investing more in intellectual intrigue than emotional fulfillment. So, although Black Swan is the more ambitious motion picture, one could argue that The Wrestler is more satisfying. Nevertheless, I feel safe asserting that both are among the most compelling productions of their respective release years.

Black Swan (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2010-12-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1