Saturday, January 15, 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan

Black Swan

My shadow's...shedding skin

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Rated R for strong sexual content, drug use, disturbing imagery, dangerous levels of Mila Kunis sassiness

Darren Aronofsky is a director who seems to love to explore the dark side of human nature. And there's a whole lot of that to explore. Humans are dark, dark creatures. Every malignant storyline, villain, monster, and atrocious real-world act in our recorded history was the creation of human beings. It's easy for us to pawn off our dark side on the orcs and demons of our creation in stories, and on some deeper level it probably makes us feel better about ourselves. Countless video games have a villain who turns out to be under mind control by a demon; often they even turn out to be a demon themselves. We need to absolve ourselves of blame whenever possible, and any game directed at children will likely have a really hard time letting actual people be villains. This is why I have particularly high respect for Final Fantasy VI allowing Kefka to be just a really, really evil man. Because in the real world, the buck stops with us whether we like it or not.

Aronofsky's latest effort, Black Swan, is a divisive film. To some, it's a shady, perhaps even tawdry Oscar wannabe, rolling onto the scene at the end of the year with a wave of fanfare and an enigmatic, cryptic trailer. It's when you look at the movie as a study of how flawed the individual can be that it shows how brilliant it actually is. Ballet isn't necessarily the focal point here, it's merely the vehicle for a character study. This is a movie about insanity and perfection, and how the two frequently go hand-in-webbed-hand.

Hoping I can clear the way by stepping through my shadow

This film stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a rising ballet star working for New York City Ballet an unnamed ballet company in New York. She's determined to land the starring role - that of both the Swan Queen and the nefarious Black Swan - in a major production of Swan Lake, and yet she faces difficulties. As a sheltered lass brimming with innocence, she has trouble bringing out the dark, seductive ferocity necessary to play the black swan. As a result, she faces withering scrutiny from Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the womanizing, demanding, strict director of the ballet company. While he demands great things out of Nina and company and pushes them to greater heights, his character is like a domineering father, always finding ways to deflate the ego of his daughters in order to maintain control over them.

Been crawling on my belly, clearing out what could've been

Nina must also deal with her extremely controlling single mother (Barbara Hershey), who involves herself in every aspect of Nina's life to the point of having an emotional iron grip on her. This leaves her with no particularly kind role-models to look up to; there is no real warmth in her existence. Her life consists of training, being a good daughter, and not having very much fun. Perhaps most dangerous of all to Nina's sense of stability is when she encounters competition from Lily (Mila Kunis). A tornado of outgoing sexual lightning, Lily is everything that good-girl Nina is not; her bad-ness seems to make her a shoe-in for the black swan role that Nina is so obsessive about landing. From there, Nina begins to spiral out of control even as she and Lily seemingly become two peas in a pod. The relationship between Nina and Lily brings back memories of the Buffy/Faith dynamic in the Buffy TV series, only here things are amped up and it's difficult to tell who is right or wrong.

See my shadow taking me, stepping up and over me

This movie is dark, very dark. There are some truly cringe-worthy scenes, especially one involving a hangnail. Much of the movie's more disturbing imagery is a byproduct of Nina's mind; after a certain point, the audience finds itself wondering how much of the story is real and how much is an illusion. This is in many ways a cautionary tale against getting too caught up in our obsessive pursuits, even that of success.

 Change is coming, now it's my time

Despite the general dark motif at work here, the movie also has a good deal of comedic value. Comedy, you ask? The sheer ridiculousness of many of the scenes invites the audience to laugh; problem is, most of the audience probably doesn't realize they're allowed to. Scenes like Nina's attempts to masturbate are outright hilarious if not taken too seriously. There are sequences in this movie that are so over the top that one has to wonder if they were intentional. This humor isn't without consequence, however. It's easy for Thomas' overtures at Nina to come off as borderline comical; however, this is accompanied by the notion that the man is essentially committing sexual harassment on his young charges. Even when the movie is funny, there is an accompanying dose of darkness.

She looks like this a lot.


This movie has a great deal in common with both The Wrestler and Fight Club. This is a good thing; there are far worse sources to draw from than those two brilliant movies. It parallels Fight Club in being a story with a city-dwelling, unreliable narrator; as she makes her way in the world, she comes increasingly undone. Both movies show some disturbing physical abuse suffered by their protagonists as they plummet along a downward spiral.

"The first rule is, you don't talk about it. And the second..."

The Wrestler is another Darren Aronofsky film, which explains the similarities. Indeed, it and Black Swan originally began life as the same movie. The Wrestler is a story about an aging wrestler at the twilight of his career; he doesn't know how to do much else. He wants to hold on to his past glory at any cost to his own well-being, as a result. Black Swan is a story of a young competitor near the dawn of her career who wants to achieve future glory at any cost to her own well-being. Both stories are gritty and filled with the harshness of reality; an over-the-shoulder, handheld camera method of filming differentiates them from most other movies and gives them a documentary style feeling. On some level, the duality of these two movies is a demonstration of how pro wrestling, ballet, and other performance arts aren't too different from one another; a lengthy, high-profile championship match and a performance of Swan Lake both come with similar anxieties and rigors of training and practice. The main characters have a connection, as well. While Randy "The Ram" Robinson is physically broken, Nina is mentally broken. While Randy hangs on to his wrestling persona to feel relevant, Nina is confronted by her shadow self head-on.

Forty six and two are just ahead of me.

At the end of the day, this movie is really about a completely unhinged girl's Quixotic quest to be, in her own words, perfect. It is both beautiful and disturbing, comedic and tragic. It's unique, intelligent, and engaging. It has enough twists and turns to keep viewers talking about it long after it ends. The movie manages to be the very thing that the main character so strives for: perfect.


  1. This is your best review yet.

  2. Before you read this comment, I have some SPOILERS in it. Just as a disclaimer...

    I saw Black Swan last night finally. What I like best about the movie is that there are really no "nice" characters in it. There really is no one Nina can turn to for support. Her mother is by no means a loving mother and her "friend" Lilly is either out to get her or Nina is just way too paranoid about that.

    The fact that Nina has to play BOTH the Black Swan and the White Swan is an important theme in this movie. It gets at the point you make at the beginning of this post. There is certainly a darkness lurking in humanity which this movie addresses. The Black Swan obviously is that "darkness" and in the story of Swan Lake (which I don't know, but pieced together from watching this movie) the Black Swan fucks up the White Swan's life, driving the White Swan to kill herself when all is lost.

    Nina doesn't just play the white swan, the good swan. She plays both dark and light. The black swan and the white swan are both Nina. Nina's hallucinations frequently result in her either being attacked by or attacking herself.

    In the beginning of the film, the ballet's director says to Nina "I look at you and all I see is the White Swan." But he forces her to be both. We all have a black swan in us. The super-competition and stress and anxiety and sexual intensity of being the star of this huge ballet as well as the director's influence on Nina brings out her Black Swan.

    Lilly, the ballet director and Nina's mother are, in fact, NOT her enemies in this movie. While the film has the climate of paranoia of a spy thriller with the "they're all out to get me!" thing going on, really only Nina is out to get Nina. Her mind and her body are out to get her. Other people, while they seem dangerous, are not nearly as much of a problem for Nina as the Black Swan lurking inside her.

    In the end, whether Nina actually died or not is unimportant. If she did not actually kill herself, it is still symbolic of the death of "Nina" and the birth of a new identity. At the end, when everyone crowds around her and congratulates her on how well she danced the role, that is because she has given EVERYTHING SHE HAS to the role. She has transformed. There is no more Nina. Just the Black and White Swan. Nina is dead. Perhaps actually dead, perhaps it's just another hallucination.

    I also just want to say (and this is the last thing I'll say in what has already become a too huge comment) the blending of hallucinations and reality in this movie is excellent. We follow Nina so closely that her hallucinations might as well be real.

    The one moment where I found a hallucination too flashy and where it took me a bit out of Nina's head is when her mom's paintings talk to her. That was a little much. But, that was the ONE MOMENT. For the most part, Black Swan's film making is spot-on with how it brings Nina's mindstate into reality so that there is, in effect, no reality at all. It is all in her mind and it is also all real.

  3. Great, great review. You rarely review movies anymore and it's a shame because you did some really good stuff.