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Black Swan


Year of release

Directed by
Darren Aronofsky

Written by
Mark Heyman (script)
John McLaughlin (script)
Andres Heinz (story and script))

Natalie Portman
Mila Kunis
Vincent Cassel
Barbara Hershey

Black Swan



Plot - Nina Sayers (Portman) is a ballet dancer striving to win the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. The director (Cassel) sees her as the perfect fit for the white swan, but wonders about her ability to portray the black swan. Under the domineering power of her mother (Hershey), and with competiton from new dancer Lily (Kunis), Nina attempts to channel the darker character elements of the black swan, but with detrimental impact to her mental wellbeing.

A few years ago on another forum (not a movie one) there was a topic with the title 'Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis lesbian film.' And in it a bunch of guys were salivating over the thoughts of it, and already praising Aronofsky as a legend/hero/God. Sadly that board closed down but I would have loved to read the reaction of those same people. While there may be one scene that matches the dreams they were forging, the package that surrounds it probably isn't what most of them were imagining.

I found this to be a strangely hypnotic viewing experience. I had actually only planned on watching the first 30/45 minutes, finishing it the next day. However I got so caught up in it that I ended up staying up into the wee small hours to watch the whole thing. Despite its prominence in the story this is not really a 'ballet movie'. The ballet just acts as the background for a story of a psychological breakdown, feeling reminiscent of my recent Take Shelter viewing. It's an exhilaratingly intense and wildly melodramatic production, certainly one that makes an impression and is unlikely to leave my memory anytime soon.

You could throw many labels at this film; 'subtle' however would not be one of them. Aronofsky's style is not that of a shrinking violet, coming across as very in your face. His constant use of mirrors (it feels like there is a least one in every single scene) is a rather predictable motif, and one that is certainly drummed into our minds. Its tremendous overuse ensures that it's unlikely to be missed by anyone. Metaphors are laid on very thick throughout, with the melding of both worlds being very obvious as the similarities between Nina's life and the story of Swan Lake begin to pile up. Indeed when she's in a bar relaying the plot of the ballet to a potential suitor, she pretty much telegraphs the remaining details of the story, including its finale.

In many ways the film actually felt very much like one of the classic Grimm fairytales. Despite some fantastical and fanciful elements, and moments of beauty, they are established in amongst a sinister and haunting atmosphere. With its phantasmal and chimerical nature we really do find ourselves placed firmly within the mind of Nina. Luckily I'm not one who is prone to nightmares. The few I have had in my life however really did quite resemble this film. They were fractured, disjointed, irrational and nonsensical.

While there is much to find odd and unsettling about the film, for me it was none more so than in the rather creepy mother/daughter relationship between Portman's Nina, and her former ballerina mother, Erica. Their interaction is that of a mother and a much younger little girl. The mother controls and suffocates her, while Nina speaks in such a young and submissive demeanour, even calling her 'mommy.' This apparent youth is also highlighted by Nina's bedroom. With its fluffy animals and wallpaper of pink hearts it feels like it hasn't been altered since she was about seven years old. She seems trapped by her mother's obsession and constant control. That along with her obsessive love of ballet and quest for perfection have created limits for the character in terms of emotions, sexuality and her mental acuity. It actually makes for a fun contrast with Leon were she played a young girl with emotions and thoughts well beyond her age.

After having such acclaim heaped on her I was initially underwhelmed by Portman's performance, even verging on finding her faintly annoying, particularly her mousy little voice. I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about, and then her breakdown begins to intensify and she starts her transformation. From then on I was just completely hooked and mesmerised by her. It's a truly bravura performance as her innocence and virginal appeal give way to the Black Swan's darker traits and characteristics which bleed from the stage into her real life. The closer she gets to the perfection she craves, the faster her sanity ebbs away until she completes her transformation, in the process reaching her 'perfection.'

As her counterbalance Mila Kunis is the perfect embodiment of the Black Swan, delivering a truly sensual and edgy character. And doing so with the kind of ease and natural disposition that her character is attributed with in ballet terms. After hearing so much about their performances however the one that pleasantly surprised and intrigued me was Vincent Cassel's turn as the director, Thomas Leroy. He is a terrifically domineering and wonderfully arrogant presence. It was also a nice surprise and a treat when Winona Ryder popped up.

While you could put up a decent argument that Aronofsky's direction verges into some overwrought and pretentious territory, there is also much to admire and be supremely struck by. The camerawork in particular is impressive and effective. It frequently finds itself very tight to Portman; following in her footsteps, creating a very claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere that reflects her own obsession and deteriorating mindset. And the way that the camera swoops along with each ballet movement gives the dance scenes a great deal of life and energy, and in turn beauty. Visually the film is stunning. The art direction and cinematography make for a lush environment. More successful a motif than the abundance of mirrors is the use of colour, with an affluent amount of blacks, greys and whites dominating the screen. This goes for the surroundings as well as the fashion, with Nina's clothes moving from white to black by way of grey.

It's certainly not a perfect film. The story isn't all that original, with a number of clichés kicking about. The film is a bit gauche and overly pulpy, at times descending too deep into horror territory, all lead by Aronofsky's somewhat dogmatic and peremptory direction. It would also have been nice if they had kept a little doubt about Nina's mental state. Right from the off it's made clear that it's all as a result of her mental deterioration, and nothing to do with Mila Kunis' character sabotaging her. However, none of this was close to enough to put me off.

I was in a bit of a quandary over the rating to award this film. It's the type of film were I feel I could really do with a repeat viewing to fully get a grasp of it and cement my opinion, but at the same time I'm not sure its a film I'd be in much of a hurry to revisit all that soon, or indeed that often. With its dark tone and macabre visuals, and its concept of having to destroy yourself to make art I wouldn't class it as fun viewing. While I perhaps wouldn't go as far as calling it a tough watch, it certainly isn't an easy one. My score was fluctuating; at times it was both higher and lower than the end product, but I settled on a solid 8.5, but certaily with the potential to grow.

Conclusion – A film of nightmarish beauty, full of striking images and led by a stunning, powerhouse showing from Portman. It's clear to see why it proved to be quite a polarizing film, it's certainly not for everyone. But it was for me.