"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DVD of the Week: Black Swan

Let’s be honest, there aren’t many ballet-centric films out there and even fewer that are good, with notable exceptions like The Red Shoes (1948) and the underrated Robert Altman film The Company (2003). So Darren Aronofsky had his work cut out for him with Black Swan (2010), a ballet film reimagined as a psychological horror tale reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s early work. Aronofsky is a filmmaker that strives to make genres his own – edgy science fiction (Pi) and a gritty sports film (The Wrestler). He even incorporated aspects of the horror genre in his harrowing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). Black Swan tackles the genre head-on with the kind of intensity we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker.

In a bold move, Aronofsky cast Natalie Portman, an actress known mostly for appealing characters in films like Where the Heart Is (2000) and Garden State (2004), against type as an aspiring yet psychologically conflicted ballerina trying to land the part in a production of Swan Lake. However, the gamble paid off in a big way as she delivered a complex, powerful performance that garnered a multitude of awards, most notably the Oscar for Best Actress.

A New York ballet company’s lecherous director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that his take on Swan Lake is going to be a stripped down and visceral affair. He’s looking for a fresh new face to play both the Black and White Swan, which doesn’t sit too well with veteran ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) who is effectively pushed out, or “retired,” at the beginning of the film in order to make room for aspiring dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She is eager to get the role but not only has to battle her own self-doubts but strong competition from rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), a newcomer from San Francisco who is everything Nina isn’t: confident and uninhibited. Nina has her technique down cold but she lacks Lily’s passion and the ability to lose herself in the role.

Early on, we see the cracks beginning to show in Nina’s façade. Near a subway stop she passes someone on the street that looks exactly like her. At home, she notices a strange, small rash on her back. Are these symptoms of stress or something else more sinister? As if she didn’t have enough pressure, her overbearing stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) treats her daughter like she’s still a little girl. This extends to the décor in Nina’s bedroom – awash in pink and populated with stuffed animals. When she’s not painting creepy portraits of her daughter, Erica tries to control every moment of Nina’s home life. However, Nina is able to escape her clutches once she starts hanging out with Lily. The rival dancer takes Nina for a walk on the wild side, giving her drugs and taking her clubbing, which loosens up her inhibitions and that’s only for starters.

Like he did with The Wrestler (2008), Aronofsky shows us the tricks of the trade, the minutia dancers do, like how they break in a new pair of dancing slippers or tape up their ankles and feet in preparation. He also shows the punishment Nina’s body takes from dancing – she is scarily thin, has busted toe nails, endures a seemingly endless number of rehearsals, and pushes herself to the point of exhaustion.

Initially, Natalie Portman plays the prim and proper character we’ve seen her do before but the actress soon reveals Nina to be a deeply flawed person gradually coming apart at the seams as she tries to cope with the pressure of taking on the lead role in a high profile production. Portman displays some serious acting chops as she brilliantly conveys the mental disintegration of her character. The actress gives all sorts of intriguing nuances that make us wonder just how much of what is happening to her is real or in her head. She commits herself to the role completely and this is particular evident in the climactic sequence where Nina finally performs Swan Lake in front of an audience on opening night.

As if casting Portman was a risk, in comes That ‘70s Show’s Mila Kunis. Now, she’s shown her “serious” acting chops in Max Payne (2008), but the jump from a supporting role in that film to a much more substantial supporting role in Black Swan is a quantum leap for the actress. Vincent Cassel plays a Svengali-like ballet director who pushes Nina by manipulating her emotions and playing on her insecurities about the Black Swan role. Winona Ryder has a juicy role as a disgruntled aging dancer on her way out. She has a memorable scene in which she confronts Nina in a boozy, vengeful haze. There is a delicious irony here as in real life Portman now gets the high profile leading roles that Ryder used to get in the 1990’s.

Black Swan is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) in that they all depict a protagonist’s nightmarish descent into madness. Aronofsky’s film is a terrific showcase for Portman’s talents, challenging her like no other role before as she finally fulfills the promise showed very early on in her career with Leon: The Professional (1994). For Aronofsky, he only improves as a filmmaker, adding another self-destructive protagonist to his roster. He has arguably made his best film to date and it should be interesting to see what he does next.

Special Features:

Black Swan Metamorphosis” is a three-part making of documentary about the film that can be viewed separately or altogether. There is all kinds of fascinating, fly-on-the-wall, on-set footage showing several scenes being shot. Various crew members talk about their respective roles in the production. This doc provides some insight on how they shot Black Swan on a small budget with little time. Natalie Portman talks about the rigorous training schedule she went through in order to pull off the dance sequences. This is quite a good look at various aspects of the production.



  1. It's funny J.D.. Natalie Portman often leaves me cold, as much as she did in the Star Wars prequels. Apart from Leon The Professional, and mainly bceause I loved Jean Reno, there hasn't been much I've been interested in featuring Portman.

    Your DVD of the Week spotlight is on the only film out there by her that has me intrigued. I would like to see this one and The Wrestler. They are two films of interest.

    As always, I enjoy your DVD of the Week examinations. Cheers, SFF

  2. The plot is too obvious and full of gimmicks but Aronofsky dinamic eye and Portman's full immersion in the role makes it an entertaining trip with some sublime parts. Good Review!

  3. I really enjoyed this movie, although "enjoyed" might not be the right word. I think Aronofsky is one of the most brilliant directors going, and Black Swan was more than I expected. The attention to detail (which you point out) is terrific. He understands that for a metaphor to be effective, the surface meaning must work on it's own. I can't say that I care much about ballet, but it didn't matter, as the obsession is what drives it. I can't recall another movie that managed tension so consistently throughout. You know pretty soon, that something has to give. Barbara Hershey is tremendous, and Natalie Portman is amazing! Great review as usual!

  4. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Not a big Natalie Portman fan, eh? I like her. I feel the opposite - she is quite good at emoting and showcased this ability in films like BEAUTIFUL GIRLS and GARDEN STATE. Never did care for her in the STAR WARS prequels but I don't think that was her fault as Lucas can't direct actors worth a crap. I also thought she was quite good in the Mike Nichols film CLOSER.

    I think you'll like BLACK SWAN. Definitely check out THE WRESTLER. Fantastic performance by Mickey Rourke in that one.

    Dan O.:

    The plot actually didn't bother me so much. Sure, it is familiar territory but it's what Aronofsky does with it that makes the film special, IMO.

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave comments.


    I am in total agreement with you on Aronofsky. Good call on "enjoying" his films. Maybe you experience them rather than enjoy them?

    You write:

    "He understands that for a metaphor to be effective, the surface meaning must work on it's own."

    That's a really good observation and I completely agree with you. I'm not a fan of ballet at all but it was certainly a compelling device that Aronofsky used in this film and I did find the behind-the-scenes aspects of ballet quite fascinating.

  5. Fine look at this one, J.D. And an apt comparison with Polansky's REPULSION and THE TENANT. I really enjoyed (and cringed at) Portman's portrayal. It was another great film from Aronofsky (with another a splendid cast). Thanks.

  6. Though wholly impressed, I really wasn’t all that surprised by Portman’s performance. I figured it was only a matter of time before she landed the spotlight with a sensational turn of character. The film itself oddly reflects her largely subdued and demure 17 year history of acting – something pint up for so long that all of the sudden bursts into a cerebral/emotional lighting storm.

    What surprised me was Mila Kunis. Up to this point her few recent attempts with weightier drama (Max Payne, The Book of Eli) stretched credibility, like a little girl trying to play it tough and heavy. I honestly didn’t think much of her either way, until I saw this movie. Here, she is so subversively blithe, effortless, and effervescent. She hits just the right balance between blissfully oblivious night clubber and the Devil herself, poisoning Nina’s reality. I suppose I can understand why she wasn’t nominated for best supporting actress; her performance was nowhere near “showy” enough. But I think she’s absolutely vital the film.

    I said in my own quickie-review that this movie was just a big mess, but that it kinda’ has to be. If you let yourself become immersed in this dizzying world of psycho ballet fuck-monsters, by the end the whole experience feels like you got your money’s worth. In this case, the further down the rabbit hole of indulgent pop-art splattery the better.

  7. le0pard13:

    Thank you for the kind words! We are in total agreement re: Portman and Aronofsky. They really brought out the best in each other.

    Space Cadet:

    I get what you say about BLACK SWAN being the culmination of Portman's career to date. She has sprinkled weightier material throughout her career and I think that with the underrated film, BROTHERS, it really laid the groundwork for her in BLACK SWAN in an odd way.

    And good call on Kunis! Just because it is so omnipresent on TV, I've got quite a few episodes of THAT '70s SHOW and she was quite good on it but nothing really suggested what she was capable of in BLACK SWAN. I think this is down to Aronofsky's uncanny ability of bringing the best out of actors. He really seems to tune in on their strengths and really gets them to dig deep. Look at what he did with Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER. He'd been sleepwalking his way through role after role and Aronofsky really got him to deliver the goods.

    I like your final assessment of the film being a bit of mess and you're right, it really needed to be and it fit in with the general madness of the protagonist herself. Thanks for the great comments!