Black Swan

Black Swan
Made in: USA
Language: English
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Year: 2010

Synopsis: While attending a friend's wedding in Beverly Hills, I was wandering near a pond where I spotted a large, majestic swan swimming by. A member of the grounds-keeping staff, standing at the opposite shore, was preparing a bag of swan feed. As soon as he approached the pond, I flinched as the swan sprung upwards, leaving behind a small mushroom cloud of water and feathers in its wake.

Its bill shot forward and clamped onto to the poor guy's boot with a ferocity normally reserved for creatures such as timber wolves or burrito-deprived Jenny Craig drop-outs. After a few desperate minutes, the groundskeeper wrestled his foot away, dumped the swan feed on the grass, and hurried off.

The sight was both terrifying and hilarious, and forever altered my image of swans. Those things are not friendly! That little memory was the only thing that prepared me for Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller about Nina Sayers, (Natalie Portman), a highly-skilled ballerina in a New York City ballet company. Like the other ballerinas, her life revolves around ballet where the competition is as fierce as anything you'd see in the NFL or the world of Competitive Eating.

Nina's technical prowess and talent, however, comes at a steep price. She is utterly consumed with perfection, due much in part to her domineering, control-freak mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Erica was once a ballerina, and is obviously living through her daughter. Nina has an incredibly low frustration tolerance, and may literally be working herself to death.

When the ballet company director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), decides to retire Beth (Winona Ryder), his prima ballerina, the fight is on for the lead role in the company's next production, Swan Lake.

Although Thomas believes that Nina would be perfect as Odette, the Swan Queen (or Princess?), he feels she lacks the ability to bring out the sensual, reckless side of the story's second lead: the Black Swan. He believes that Nina is too controlled and constrained.

Nina's chief rival for the role is Lily (Mila Kunis), the company's newest dancer. Although Nina is arguably a superior dancer in terms of technique, Lily brings a raw passion and energy that perfectly embodies the role of the Black Swan. And that immediately catches Thomas' eye.

As Nina and Lily become rivals, they also develop an unlikely friendship that compels Nina to embrace her dark side. The result takes a serious mental toll on Nina as reality, perception, and imagination begin to intertwine in freaky ways.

The Good: Black Swan is an intense, and often scary psychological thriller. Natalie Portman, who did her own dancing, does a fine job portraying the obsessive ballerina. But it is the artistry of Darren Aronofsky that really enables the viewer to see the flow of events through Nina's eyes. The visuals are frightening and effective, and there is no predicting when you're going to see something really scary/trippy. And that's half the fun!

Mila Kunis, known for her role as the voice of Meg in Family Guy, turns out a strong performance as Lily. And the versatile Vincent Cassel does a convincing job playing the artistic, although morally unscrupulous, company director. Winona Ryder has a small role, and even though she didn't quite sell me on being a ballet dancer, she does add to the overall intense mood of the story.

Furthermore, she has a terrifying scene that damn near scared the crap out of me (I won't tell you what it is but if you go see the movie I bet you'll figure out exactly what I'm talking about).

Black Swan certainly deserves credit for being a substantive, visceral experience about the dangers of obsession and doing one too many pirouettes. The thematic strategy of having the Swan Lake story mirror the reality of Nina's experience is not a new thing.

The "story-within-a-story" bit has been done in other films such as Truffaut's Day for Night, Carlos Saura's Tango, and Richard Rush's The Stunt Man. But Darren Aronofsky manages to make this feel original, and it's amazing how he can take the subject of classical ballet and make it really scary.

The Bad: As much as I enjoyed the film, Black Swan did have a few problems. The confusion caused by Nina's mental state, which blurred the line between perception and reality, sometimes created actual confusion (the bad kind) for the viewer. Some major turning points might seem unclear (perhaps intentionally so to create discussion amongst filmgoers), but it does come close to the "oh, it was all just a dream" cop out that every storyteller should avoid.

Also, there are some parts of the story that feel incomplete. For instance, there isn't a clear antagonist. The moral depravity of Vincent Cassel's character never comes to any real conclusion. And he never actively hinders Nina's goal. Nina's mother, Erica, is definitely someone we don't like at times. But she can't really be seen as a clear antagonist either because of her underlying support for her daughter.

Lily may be Nina's professional rival, and without spoiling the movie, let's just say that calling her the "bad guy" won't stick. All of this leads to an incomplete, or at best, a very unclear character arc for the protagonist.

And finally, with all of the sophisticated scares and powerful images, there are moments when Darren Aronfsky opts for cheaper scares. There are several moments where people accidentally bump into Natalie Portman from behind, giving her a good scare.

And because of the camera angle and sound effects, we all jump in our seats too. They're red herrings of course, but within the context of the story, either everybody in Nina's life moves as silently as ninjas or they must have the ability to mysteriously teleport into the space right behind her.

Who would like this movie: Black Swan is for you if you like psychological thrillers, indie movies, and piss-in-your-pants scares that will mostly keep you on the edge of your seat. Don't watch this movie at night if you can help it.

If you're familiar with the works of Darren Aronofsky, then you'll pretty much know what to expect. It's not for the faint of heart: aside from some frightening scenes, there's plenty of sexual content that's explicit (but believable given the subject matter). So stay away if you're offended by the sight of girls making out with each other while in their underwear.

Fans of ballet will probably appreciate the dancing, and the film is respectful of Tchaikovsky. Black Swan, like ballet itself, is not for everyone and I'm certain many viewers will have issues with the ending. Nonetheless, it's a dark, sometimes disturbing story with creative visuals that focuses on realistic characters. A solid piece overall.

(3 and 1/2 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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