Black Swan: A Strange Bird of a Movie

29 12 2010

Centered around Tchaikovsky’s infamous Swan Lake ballet, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan borrows elements from the ballet’s story and weaves them into his own twisted tale of paranoia and obsession. The film has been getting a lot of award buzz and is sure to be a prominent contender during award’s season. Here’s the breakdown:

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dedicated ballerina. When she’s finally given the chance to play the lead in Swan Lake, she is thrilled; however, director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) wants Nina to not only master the character of the White Swan, but also the evil Black Swan. As the pressure slowly eats away at Nina, fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) rises up as possible competition for the lead.

The Monkey: Right from the start, Aronofsky’s presence is made known. While heavy-handed direction can sometimes be distracting, in this case, it heightened the visuals and the story, making the art of ballet more visceral and real to the audience. With sweeping, twirling and spinning camera shots, shots that got right into the thick of the dancing, Aronofsky managed to make ballet seem anything but boring or stuffy.

The themes employed were likewise heavy-handed, but wonderfully so. The constant juxtaposition of black and white, light and dark, good and evil and the use of mirrors to show the blurring of the boundaries between these dichotomies, permeated every scene.

Natalie Portman, indeed, deserves the accolades she is getting for her role as the naïve, timid Sayers-turned Black Swan. Her transformation was gut-wrenching in its extreme nature, yet uncanny in its subtle crescendo. A stand-out performance, to be sure; however, I’m shocked that Mila Kunis is not getting more buzz than she is (although she is nominated for a Golden Globe – one of the few things the Globes got right this year). Her performance as bad-girl Lily was wildly entertaining. Seething sensuality and hidden darkness, Kunis’ Lily was the perfect antithesis to Portman’s Sayers. Considering her history of lackluster film credits to-date, Kunis proved she is an acting force to be reckoned with.

While Black Swan does a remarkable job capturing onscreen the blind chaos of paranoia, obsession and hysteria…

The Weasel: …it ultimately becomes a jumbled mess. Before I continue, however, let me be clear – Aronofsky intended for this to be the outcome. He is a meticulous filmmaker, and stringing together a flurry of disturbing images in an effort to capture the inner emotions of Nina’s character was well-planned and executed. But that doesn’t mean it makes for a successful narrative.

Spoilers! The film breaks down as Nina loses her grip on reality: paintings move, feathers sprout from her skin, characters appear and disappear…by the end of the movie, it’s completely unclear what was “real” and what was a figment of Nina’s inner psyche. Did Lily even exist? Did Beth (Winona Ryder’s character) even exist? Did Lily die? Did Nina die? Was there even a freakin’ ballet at all? I’m all for movies that leave you guessing and refuse to provide all the answers (a la Donnie Darko), but at some point, it just feels like weirdness for weirdness’ sake. There were definite notes of split-personality, identity crisis, being pressured to the breaking point…yet the whirlwind of themes and oddities ended up as just that, a whirlwind.

Black Swan is a Darren Aronofsky masterpiece, no doubt. It’s the modern art of the film world; it captures an emotion – a desperate attempt at perfection – beautifully, but it fails at telling a story. Is it a movie about obsession? Perfection? Sexual repression? Paranoia? Yes…and no…and…hmmm…

3.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did you enjoy the off-kilter nature of Black Swan? How would you interpret the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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5 responses

30 12 2010

a great review, Dustin. (as usual). I was intrigued also by the play on colors and the prominent use of mirrors in the film. The details and clues that Aronofsky placed in the film made it so entrapping…my attention was glued trying to find meaning in so many different places.
I am glad you give credit to Mila Kunis. You are right, she ends up taking a third place seat in discussions of the film…after (1)its bizarreness and (2)Natalie Portman. She is deserving of attention. Great post.

24 01 2011

A perfect performance from Portman, and a very very creepy direction, that works so well, ultimately leads this into one of the tense films of the year. Good Review!

27 01 2011

Thanks for commenting!

26 05 2011

Though the film *does* get crazier and crazier towards the end, I see no reason to doubt the existence of the ballet itself, Lily, or Beth. They were all in place at the very beginning, before Nina spun out of control. In fact, she spun out of control BECAUSE of those elements. Furthermore, I think just about every scene that was a hallucination was made clear that it wasn’t reality either while it was happening (like with the moving portraits) or after (like when Lily tells Nina that she spent the previous night with Tom).

31 05 2011

Good points, Whit – this will be one of those movies they debate in film classes for years! 🙂

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