Black Swan
A Film Review

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 2 February 2011
Category: Screen > Film > Reviews
Tags: #horror, #lgbti Comments View Comments


Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, tells the story of a ballet dancer whose single-minded, emotionally stunted focus and psychological fragility threatens to derail her career when she is picked as the principal dancer in her company's production of Swan Lake, which means portraying both the innocent white swan and the seductive black swan.

Black SwanEvery moment of Black Swan is visceral and raw - much of the footage is from a hand-held camera, most of the angles are closeups, and the film is even shot on grainy film stock - and many shots focus on the reflections of the characters rather than the characters themselves. In most cases (there are, if I counted correctly, two notable exceptions) the very precise palette comprises muted tones - mainly pinks, with a few soft blues and washed-out greens. What little we see of New York during the day is grey and unappealing and hallways, passageways, and thoroughfares are dark, often with a green tinge. There are no colours that symbolise life and joy; everything is drab, dreary, stark, and functional.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a perfectionist with movements that reflect precision but lack vitality, humanity, and raw emotion. Her entire life has been devoted to ballet, backed by a mother, Erica, (Barbara Hershey) who feels she had to give up her own (failed) career in ballet in order to raise her daughter. Erica is supportive but also overbearing and manipulative; she lives vicariously through her daughter's accomplishments and is immensely proud of them yet she is possibly destructive (it’s ambiguous and depends on your interpretation). She seems emotionally vacant (as seen through Nina’s eyes) and has passed that on to her daughter. The result is that Nina is repressed and incredibly fragile - so fragile, in fact, that it seems as if at any minute she may shatter, and the constant use of mirrors and reflections heightens this tension and acts as foreshadowing.

Black SwanThe company director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), decides to start the season with a new interpretation of Swan Lake, and launches his ego-driven project with some housekeeping in the form of the removal of the much-admired long-standing principal dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). Nina is chosen as the new principal as she is perfect for the role of the white swan - but the passion of the black swan eludes her, which frustrates Thomas as he is a brilliant choreographer but also an egotistical bastard so he is unable to draw the performance from her through coaching and guidance. She is so tightly wound up and emotionally crippled that the only "technique" (to use the term loosely) he has at his disposal is seduction, which he uses to try and draw reactions from her and to pull some real emotions out of her. His (primary) intention is to help her understand what she should be feeling in her portrayal of the black swan, but his efforts initially meet with limited success, as the changes that we as the audience are privy to are all psychological and affect Nina's state of mind, not her performance.

Technically there is some excellent camera and special effects work that never tries to take centre stage and is very cleverly executed to continue and occasionally heighten the tension of the film. One particularly interesting example utilised the camera revolving around Natalie Portman as she dances in the rehearsal room (a technique later repeated for a different emotional context when she is on stage). Two walls of the rehearsal room are mirrored, yet you never see the camera or its operators reflected in the background. It was one of only a handful of very brief moments in which I was kicked out of the narrative and the film geek in me took over to appreciate the skill of the filmmakers. The rest of the time I was utterly engrossed in the story because the pacing was so good.

Black SwanThe tension in this movie is set right at the beginning and is never broken. It manifests primarily as the audience's connection to Nina's fragility, which is achieved using many closeups and by focussing the story solely on Nina: Natalie Portman is in every scene - everything we see is from Nina's perspective - and her portrayal is masterful.

Our connection later morphs into the more visceral experience that the filmmakers expertly foster as Nina increasingly becomes mentally unhinged until the line between reality and illusion is quite blurred (for her as much as for the audience). Yet even as she hallucinates and unravels, each slip into that derangement brings her closer to being able to portray the black swan with the enigmatic physical and emotional darkness that the role requires, resulting in a black swan persona emerging.

Black SwanThe members of the supporting cast do a magnificent job with the screen time that they have. Winona Ryder, who, as mentioned, plays the company's washed-up ex-principal dancer who is viciously put out to pasture, is in few scenes, though she excels in each one, and I kept wishing she had been given more screen time. However, that would have lessened the impact of her performance and the important contribution her character makes to the storyline, so I have to be accepting of the fact that her precious few moments of screen time were the right choice on the part of the director.

Mila Kunis plays Lily, a new addition to the company who is from out of town and is everything that Nina is not - vibrant, warm, carefree, and sensual, and the embodiment of the black swan. Her presence becomes a threat to Nina's position as the principal dancer and a repeated catalyst to Nina's psychological downward spiral.

Black SwanThe music, by Clint Mansell, weaves strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake into a more contemporary score. I have to admit that I was so captivated by the visuals, story, and acting that, unusually for me, I didn't pay enough attention to the music (another reason to go and see the film again). However I would argue that this means it fitted the production beautifully, contributing to atmosphere, pacing, and tension perfectly. There were, however, moments where I definitely was aware of the music and how well it complemented the visuals and the emotions of the characters. There are also a couple of Chemical Brothers tracks, which I did notice because they are so different from the score, but they are perfectly suited to the moments in which they appear.

Black SwanThe sound design is haunting and at times disturbing, though it also contributes to a couple of "cheap shot" moments, designed to scare the audience, that would be much better off in a bad horror movie. (In fact, those moments are my only complaint about what is otherwise a superb film.)

The climax plays itself out beautifully, with twists and turns both on and off the stage and an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion (your mileage may vary). I left the theatre emotionally drained, yet also invigorated.

The review screening was courtesy of Nu Metro. Black Swan opens on circuit in South Africa on Friday 4 February 2011, and is up for five awards at this year’s Academy Awards, which will be held at the end of February. Opinion
Rating: 9/10
In One Word: Visceral

Key Facts: Black Swan
Year: 2010
Running Time: 108 minutes
Genre: Psychological thriller, Horror
Format: Feature; Widescreen 1:2.35; Colour
Language: English
Country: USA
Black Swan
Natalie Portman ... Nina Sayers
Mila Junis ... Lily
Vincent Cassel ... Thomas Leroy
Barbara Hershey ... Erica Sayers
Winona Ryder ... Beth Macintyre
Benjamin Millepied ... David
Mark Heyman ... screenplay
Andrés Heinz ... screenplay
John J McLaughlin ... screenplay
Andrés Heinz ... story
Jon Avnet ... executive producer
Brad Fischer ... executive producer
Scott Franklin ... producer
Gerald Fruchtman... c0-producer
Peter Fruchtman... executive producer
Rose Garnett ... associate producer
Ari Handel ... executive producer
Mike Medavoy ... producer
Arnold Messer ... producer
Brian Oliver ... producer
Joseph P. Reidy ... co-producer
Jennifer Roth ... executive producer
Rick Schwartz ... executive producer
Tyler Thompson ... executive producer
David Thwaites ... executive producer
Original Music: Clint Mansell
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique ... director of photography
Film Editing: Andrew Weisblum
Casting: Mary Vernieu
Production Design: Thérèse DePrez
Art Direction: David Stein
Set Decoration: Tora Peterson
Costume Design: Amy Westcott

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