Saturday, January 22, 2011

Movie Review: "Black Swan"

Darren Aronofsky once directed a gorgeous film called “The Fountain” which featured, in one of its three parallel storylines, a man floating through space in a bubble and eating the bark from a tree of life which contained his wife’s soul, which he believed would be set free when the bubble reached the center of the universe and entered a supernova.  “Black Swan” makes that film seem like “Howard’s End” by comparison.  Aronofsky has really only gotten the attention deserving of his directorial prowess with “The Wrestler”, which needs no explanation here, but it’s worth noting that it’s the only one of his films that toned down the fantastical and horror elements which are a signature of the rest of his work.  “Black Swan” represents an artistic crescendo of those elements for the visionary director, and perhaps something of an autobiographical explanation of why he has made the choices he has in his given medium.  “Black Swan” is about the pursuit of artistic perfection, and more importantly about the nature of art in general and what its creators must go through to create something of power and beauty.  The resulting film is a nightmarishly beautiful study of art set in tones of black, gray, white, and the pink bedroom of a young woman trapped in artistic childhood.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a girl with control issues; namely that she demands of herself complete control of her body while dancing and suffers unknowingly under the oppressive control of her mother, a washed up ballet dancer smothering her daughter with her own lost dreams of perfection.  Nina lands the lead, to her great surprise, in the ballet’s new production of Swan LakeThis is the moment Nina’s entire life has led up to—we understand this for having seen her ruined feet and tired body and heard the tired sounds the bones inside of both make when she prepares to perform.  Her mother buys a cake to celebrate.  When Nina is reluctant to eat it, her mother makes a huge scene of being disgusted and taking it to the trash bin.  Her control over Nina’s psyche is evident as Nina stops her, apologizes, and reluctantly takes a bite of frosting from the tip of her mother’s finger.  Later her mother will tuck her into bed in a pink room filled with early childhood’s comforts, from stuffed animals to a tinkling music box with a porcelain ballet dancer twirling obediently at its center.  It is a place of safety where everything is controlled by external forces and from which true art will never emerge—hence the stiffly spinning porcelain ballerina.  Nina is passively accepting of all of this.

Unfortunately for Nina, the play’s director, Leroy (the outstanding Vincent Cassel), has very little use for control without the key ingredient of passion, which he believes must accompany and even overtake control if a dancer is to truly reach the audience emotionally.  To prove his point, he kisses her, verbally challenges her, and eventually seduces and sexually assaults her through dance simply to prove this point.  But Nina is a slow learner.  Prodding her along, however, is the new girl, Lily (Mila Kunis, who plays her real-life persona here, but to good effect), who may or may not realize she represents a constant threat to Nina’s security as the lead.  Complicating the situation, Aronofsky often doesn’t even allow us to be certain when Lily is or is not real—the visions and hallucinations that begin to overwhelm Nina overlap reality for her completely, and Aronofsky’s choice to blind the viewer to the thin border between reality and nightmare as well is a fascinating one.  As the performance and preparation begin to spiral out of control for Nina (and how crucial to her success that they do), we are lost along with her in a limbo of horror and wonder.  Certainly some of her experiences are merely imagination, but others gob smack both Nina and the viewer in the face twice—once in the experiencing of them and again in the later realization that they never occurred.  But always they are about the same thing—the struggle between passion and control. 

Beginning with Leroy’s sexual aggression towards Nina (which to some extent does seem to be for the sake of her performance), Aronofsky explores the parallels of sexual release and the artistic expression of passion—both acts which at their height become almost entirely devoid of control.  Artistic expression might, in fact, involve a complete opening of the self to the audience in order for passion to pass from artist to audience—a concept explored richly and graphically through much of the film’s phantasmagoric imagery.  Think carefully about what you witness in Nina’s ultimate performance and the metaphors the films speaks with as readily as it does with its dialogue.  The film ultimately defies review (it’s phenomenal—you need to see it in a theater where it can overwhelm you with the theaters outsized screen and sound system).  What it demands is careful attention and exploration, which I bite my tongue against here since it would be impossible without spoilers. 

The film’s thematic elements and visual metaphors are inextricable from its fundamental story.  Filmgoers are often fond of saying that a film “works on multiple levels,” often as a way of excusing the fact that they liked a movie while recognizing that they really didn’t understand what the hell was going on in a few places.  This film refuses to allow such casual appreciation—if you aren’t in it for the art you aren’t going to be into it at all.  It’s a bold move (a passionate move, to put it in the film’s terms) by Aronofsky to risk alienating viewers through such a graphic, horrific and overwhelmingly visceral journey without much sense of relief.  The film mounts in tension rapidly through the second act, and by the third act it has become at least a third part horror film and charges with such energy and excess towards its climactic moments that the post-viewing experience involved a sense of emotional exhaustion for me as a viewer.  I remarked going into the film that I was almost scared of the movie—I know what Aronofsky is capable of doing to viewers (I shudder still at “Requiem for a Dream”) and the previews and buzz for “Black Swan” suggested a similarly demanding experience.  It exceeds those expectations on all levels.  Aronofsky manages to make devastation seem uplifting at moments and understands within his own art what the impact of raw passion will be on an audience.  In that sense, the film does work on multiple levels, but at least a few of those are in the viewer’s psyche. 

The film is also lavishly and expertly shot—there are more memorable visuals here than what even the most spoilerish trailers have let on (the image of Nina in black feathers is a beautiful one, but barely scratches the surface—pun intended, you’ll see—of what visions await you during that performance).  Aronofsky’s camera becomes a part of the choreography and struggles to be still as it witnesses Nina’s similar instability as an artist transforming.  Indeed, the camera refuses to steady itself through any dance sequences until Nina finds her own steadiness and then, suddenly, it becomes motionless, as if finally comfortable becoming an audience member itself, prepared to witness a perfect work of art, perhaps only dimly aware (as I hope Aronofsky is having stood behind it) that it has in fact created one. 

Overall Rating:  10/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you: 
(Spoilers present throughout!)

  • Much has been made of the sex scene between Nina and Lily, but I would recommend people troubled by it look back to my thoughts above—it exists only metaphorically within the film (it never happened) and represents the release of passion and the surrender of control over one’s body to that passion.  The fact that Aronofsky chose to film it in some surprisingly graphic detail speaks, I think, to his devotion to this thematic idea.  The sexuality of passion is a motif that recurs constantly throughout the film and is key to appreciating Nina’s ultimate end (she opens a hole in herself that lets passion out and the audience in).  One might also argue that the scene is really only shocking because it’s something no one would have expected these two popular and talented actresses to agree to.  Applaud them for taking the risk.
  • The stage lights casting black-swan shadows on the walls as Nina stands in human form at center stage was a gorgeous touch foreshadowing her final transformation with a nice bit of visual imagery.
  • I couldn’t say exactly why, but I found the dance scene at the night club Lily takes Nina to to be a great moment.  The sudden addition of strobing red and green light to the color palate of the film is shocking in its own right, but the freeze-frame moments it reveals (Nina suddenly in her stage makeup among them) are of equal shock value.  Again, passion sneaks out and art begins to form.  The film demands repeat viewing—I feel like I’m barely catching a tenth of what’s there.
  • I wish Vincent Cassel would get more big roles—he was similarly outstanding in “Brotherhood of the Wolf” but few people saw that, either because they never heard of it or they just don’t realize how much great French cinema is out there.
  • I really am impressed by how far the film went down the path to traditional horror—Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan is a genuine nightmare to behold.  Horripilation leading to feathers poking through the skin is one thing (and sadly spoiled by more recent TV spots), but when her legs broke backwards into the inverted avian shape I think every head in the theater snapped away from the screen in unison.  Awesome.  

  • The use of sound in this film is beyond stunning—the music needed no help from Aronofsky to provide emotional impact (I appreciate the beauty of ballet much more than I did before, which was, basically, not at all) but his use of sound in other facets of the film is outstanding.  Everything but human voices seems slightly too loud and too present, if that makes any sense.  The crunching bones in Nina’s feet (and in her legs when they break), the pounding of doors and shattering of mirrors, it’s all ratcheted up to 11, and to great effect. 
The comments section will be devoted to spoiler-filled movie discussion for this review, so share your thoughts and I’ll happily share back.


  1. Great review, couldn't agree more. I think I was a bit in shock at what I'd just seen when I left the cinema, because I wasn't expecting it to be so intense and dark. Not a massive horror fan but I feel like I have to go back and re-watch it 1 000 000 times to fully get it...hoping it gets a surprise Oscar win.

  2. I appreciate everything you wrote and got the same exact feelings from it. Best review I've found on the webs and won't be reading anymore.

  3. Anonymous, I appreciate the very kind words. I usually wouldn't go so in-depth with a movie review but it's just such a complex film I found myself rambling about my thoughts for much longer than I'd planned--I'm glad to hear it didn't fall on deaf ears.

  4. I feel sick from watching the movie, very disturbing, the sex, blood and the feather growing from the skin was all cheap. He packed too much is a such a simple storyline. sometimes less is more.

  5. I saw the movie last night and loved it. I came home to look up others' interpretations of it and was disappointed to find a lot of harping on about the dynamics of who wanted to have sex with who in the plot. I was very pleased to find your review.

    I loved the black swan shadows of wings cast on the stage at the end of the act. To me it was a great way to show that the audience also felt her transformation. Sometimes in a movie when a delusion or hallucination comes back to the visual reality, there is a stark naked moment of vulnerability (like seeing that she really had no wings, obv...)and the wings projected on the curtains held up the fact that the transformation was not her illusion alone. Loved it.

    I also am haunted by the whole thing about her mom's paintings. I feel like her mother is very sensitive to the darker side of her daughter, has seen it before and exerts control and pacification to keep her "sweet". When she finally lashes out on her mother and destroys her paintings, it sounded like the mom said, "Did you see her?" or something to this effect. It made me wonder what demons and mental illnesses they are both struggling with.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful review

    xoxo J

  6. @ J: That's a great catch regarding her mom. It hadn't even occurred to me that her mother might already be aware of Nina's dark side and was perhaps partially protecting her from it. I don't recall the "Did you see her?" line, but I believe you probably heard correctly--there was so much going on in this movie that I'm sure I missed a lot of stuff like that. Good catch--thanks for sharing.

  7. You summed it up best with this line, "Filmgoers are often fond of saying that a film “works on multiple levels,” often as a way of excusing the fact that they liked a movie while recognizing that they really didn’t understand what the hell was going on in a few places." I often find myself trying to discuss such films with fellow movie fans, yet somehow I always get that wonder answer. "It worked on multiple levels" please give more of an answer than this! I enjoyed reading your review and I hope I get to see more as I have just discovered your blog. If you ever get the chance, please, feel free to read some of my own reviews at The Editor's Floor.

  8. I am presently watching this film for the 14th time. I get more from it every time I view it.

    Aronofsky is an unparalleled genius, and I languish over every scene. Also, as a former ballet dancer, it is very accurate in the details of the mysterious private world of ballet and the almost built-in insanity and spectacular beauty and inhuman demands of the art. Bravo!