Black Swan (2010)

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Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Amid the fierce competition to secure the prized dual role of the Swan Queen and her double the Black Swan, soloist Nina Sayers (Portman) clashes with demanding auteur director Thomas (Cassel) and ambitious rising star Lily (Kunis), as well as her demanding and overprotective mother (Hershey) and unstable former principal Beth (Ryder).

Nina secures the role, but as rehearsals continue and Thomas pressures her to supplement her rigid precision with the spontaneous passion of the Black Swan, her life begins to unravel. Seeing her own image everywhere she goes and bloody wounds on her hands, Nina also becomes convinced that the impulsive Lily is after her crown. At the final performance, possessed by the spirit of the Black Swan, she believes that she has stabbed Lily and become transformed, but all is far from as it appears.

What’s wrong with it?

Black Swan is a film about artistic obsession and, as a consequence, veers perilously towards being hopelessly up itself. It is in the nature of such a film that it has to present its subject matter – in this case ballet, but the same can be said of films about composing, painting, theoretical physics or chess – as an endeavour worthy of life and death struggle and the sacrifice of health, sanity and happiness, rather than a purely intellectual/aesthetic endeavour with only tangential relevance to the greater good of society. I’m not saying that ballet, chess, composition, theoretical physics and/or painting are bad things, but I’m pretty sure that a story about, say, a teacher or a nurse who went mad under the pressure of their job would be a much less congratulatory affair focusing on their failures as a lover/spouse/parent, and that’s terrible. I may be misjudging terribly, and straight up, I have nothing but admiration for the dedication and skill of professional dancers, but therianthropic delusions seem above and beyond the call and the failures of basic pastoral care within the company are shocking.

With its focus solely on the internal struggle, the film’s external narrative is limited.

The film has only one major male role, but he’s a godlike individual who holds the fates of more or less all of the female characters in his hand.

What’s right with it?

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The combination of a stellar performance by Portman and clever use of special effects make Nina’s descent into madness vivid and visual.

The cast is truly excellent all around, with Kunis especially impressive in what was essentially her first heavyweight dramatic role (unless you count Max Payne as a heavyweight dramatic role, which I really hope you don’t.)

Despite the lauding of ballet, the flat grey pallet of the movie and its focus on the grimy backstage spaces ruthlessly refuses to glamourise it.  The toilet at the big reception is nicer than the principal’s dressing room.

How bad is it really?

Black Swan is beautiful and disturbing, but a slow moving film that really, really needs you to buy into the importance of ballet.

Best bit (if such there is)?

In the Black Swan’s dance number, as Nina surrenders to the spontaneity Thomas has demanded, the audience shares her hallucination as she physically seems to transform as she dances.

What’s up with…?

  • My world suddenly being full of Vincent Cassell?
  • The dance controversy? There was a lot of brouhaha about the film using a dance double to make people believe that Natalie Portmanwas dancing. I want to know what these people actually believe the business of filmmaking is about if not making the audience believe things that aren’t true. If a film can’t make us believe, at least for the duration, that Portman could dance a principal role, or that Stallone can single-handedly win the Vietnam War, then it’s not doing its job.

Ratings

Production values – The special effects are seamlessly and subtly interwoven with the performances, and the blend of delicate ballet trappings and dingy, everyday world communicates as much as the dialogue. 4
Dialogue and performances – Excellent performances. The script is pretty good, if a little too much into the whole sanctification of ballet. 9
Plot and execution – The plot is slight, with all the real action essentially in Nina’s head. Rivalries ultimately come to little, and it turns out that she was her own worst enemy after all. All this is par for the course in a psycho drama, but I struggle to forgive the fact that Thomas is in any way shown to be right at the end. 11
Randomness – Ballerina turns into a swan, but only in her mind. Also, largely gratuitous lesbian sex. 9
Waste of potential – Really top-notch crazy ballerina drama. 2

Overall 35%

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