I Watched: Black Swan

Black Swan – (2010) – Dir. Darren Aronofsky – 103 min. – USA

A movie about ballet doesn’t really jump at most people in today’s action-packed, 3D-converted world. But if you bring together the right people with a script dripping with drama, sexuality, and multiple personalities, then you’ll find people willing to say “hey, so I watched that ballet movie this weekend…”

If you want a sense of “Black Swan’s” tone, you just need to be reminded that director Darren Aronofsky was the man behind “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler“. He has shown the ability to reach inside your head and pull at anything he sees. While infamous in the indie film scene, none of his films have made more than $45 million at the box office. But they have produced numerous film festival and mainstream award nominations and wins.

If you know the story of Swan Lake, then (spoiler alert) the movie plays out pretty much like the ballet. “Black Swan” centers around a young ballerina, Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman), as she struggles with the pressure to be “perfect”. This pressure is ramped up when she wins the coveted role of “Swan Queen” in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake. All her life she has pushed herself to perfection, as a way to please those around her (as evidenced by her overbearing and overprotective mother, played by Barbara Hershey). This need to please enters other (sexual) dimensions with the production’s director, Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel). He tells Nina that while her perfect technique and skill as a dancer make her exactly what he wants for the role of the ‘White Swan’, her inability to seduce and “let go of herself” as the ‘Black Swan’ would make her dual performance incomplete. New arrival, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), catches Thomas’ eye as a more fitting ‘Black Swan’. Lily’s presence forces Nina to push herself to places where she’s never been before, but as one can deduce, have been building up inside of her. Nina is now faced with completely changing who she is and tapping into her dark side in order to achieve “perfection”, while rebelling from her mother, managing the sexual advances of Thomas, and deducing rivalry from friendship with Lily.

Aronofsky does what he normally does, takes you on an emotional roller coaster with a lot more downs than ups. Throughout the story he never lets you feel like things are all good, even after Nina gets the role of her dreams. Establishing this sense of paranoia with the audience helps them connect with Nina’s own sense of paranoia when it comes to Lily and her perceived plot to take over her starring role. He finds several ways to make the audience squirm uncomfortably, in particular the seemingly obsessive relationship between Nina and her mother. Oh, and the blood and body mutilation. Yeah, don’t eat a large meal before the movie. While this film didn’t traumatize me as much as “Requiem for a Dream” or hit me as hard as “The Wrestler”, this should hold up as one of his better works.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve been one of Natalie Portman’s biggest critics. Yeah, I find her extremely beautiful and nearly passed out when I heard she was walking the floor of this years’ San Diego Comic-Con. But I’ve never been blown away by her acting skills. Horrible moments in “Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith” are burned into my memory. Luckily they now sit beside moments from this film. No I’m not just talking about the masturbatory and sex scenes, but this is by far the best acting performance I’ve seen from her. Her tepid and quiet demeanor displayed early in the film helped emphasize her transformation towards the end of the film. It’s not easy to play a character who becomes two different people. Also, her dedication in putting months of training as a ballerina is something to admire. Her performance really makes or breaks the film; luckily George Lucas wasn’t directing this one.

The rest of the performances were great. I’m glad to see Milas Kunis return to form after “The Book of Eli” left a bad taste in my mouth. Vincent Cassel is freakin’ creepy as hell, so he did his job. But Barbara Hershey’s performance as Nina’s mom helped bring more background and accentuate the chaotic environment Nina is in and gives more reason to the sharpness of Nina’s turnaround. With that kind of upbringing, I’m sure most of us would be self-destructive.

Music plays a big role in this movie, as in most movies billed as ‘thrillers’. Taking the work of legendary composer Tchaikovsky and making it fit into a modern film can be a challenge. Overall, the music plays a big role in increasing the emotions and tension in each scene. Melding the classics with a modern setting proves some music really is timeless. And dammit, yes, I enjoy me some classical music and so should more people of my Hiphop generation! I was listening to the Swan Lake‘s score soon after I left the theater.

I always appreciate when directors use color to add to the story. I guess for this film, it should be a pretty obvious detail to pay attention to (though more often than not, it’s forgotten in films). For instance: Aronofsky uses a lot of light colors, such as white and pink, for Nina in the beginning, as well as using it in her room. To the point where the amount of pink seemed very eerie. As the film moves forward and you’re introduced to “darker” characters, more black and other darks are added until in the end, when the dark colors complete Nina’s transformation. So never underestimate the power of colors!

But I didn’t love everything about the film. I didn’t like the sometimes very literal interpretations throughout. The fact that Nina’s story plays pretty parallel to the story in Swan Lake takes away from the ending and other points of suspension in the film. If you know that, then you know the ending and it’s all about the journey. To me, that’s not a complete film. And I think its kinda lazy and cheesy. Like when they show Nina’s very literal transformation into the ‘Black Swan’ was a little over the top for me. Plus, the effects got kinda cheesy by that point. I enjoyed the more subtle changes in her skin…but everything after that was over-the-top for me. And I was a little disappointed with the end.

Overall, this is one of the better films I saw this year (I saw a lot of crap). While I can’t say this is Aronofsky’s best film, the buzz coming out, mainstream award nods, and star power should give him a good chance of making this his best performance at the box office. I can see where this can be a very polarizing film, where people like me enjoy it despite its faults, and others hating it precisely the faults ruined the entire film for them. But for me, the fact that I felt a little exhausted by the time the credits were rolling down is a good sign. Or maybe it was just seeing Portman and Kunis make sweet love to each other. Who knows?

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One thought on “I Watched: Black Swan

  1. This is probably Natalie Portman’s best role. You could tell she had acting chops ever since the Leon: The Professional. I think there wouldn’t be any doubt about her acting if she had just stayed away from George Lucas to begin with. She was cute as hell in Garden State and was pretty damn great in Closer. But this role as Nina probably pushed her farther than any other role has.

    At first, I was kind of feeling your thoughts about the literalism of the film’s plot and the Swan Lake story. But then I realized knowing the ending was kind of liberating as a film viewer. In most psychological thrillers, filmmakers always try and challenge the viewer to guess what will happen. It’s like watching an M. Night film and you’re just waiting for the twist to come in the third act. With Black Swan, you already know what will happen so the viewer can then be drawn in to the internal and external conflict Nina must endure.

    Yes, there is a level of absurdity in this film that probably won’t fly with many mainstream audience members. But what’s clear here is Aronofsky is truly a master of his craft. I enjoyed your write-up, Lyle. Keep ’em coming.

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