REVIEW: Black Swan [2010]

“Get ready to give me more of that bite”

The line from Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature Pi, ‘When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So when I was six, I did.’ wouldn’t get out of my head throughout his newest, Black Swan. After tackling a pretty straightforward tale in The Wrestler, the auteur went back to his roots, embracing the psychological terrors of humanity. Similar to Pi’s Maximillian Cohen—a reclusive genius driven mad by his work—Nina Sayers is a closeted young woman with obvious mental problems who has been coddled by a well-meaning, but dangerously protective mother, (see Piper Laurie in Carrie). Living life in a bubble of security, Nina is surrounded by temper mood swings of love at the hands of her only parent and numerous stuffed animals and trinkets from a youth that should be far removed. Comparisons to a film like Labyrinth could be made with it’s themes of growing up; only instead of a spoiled brat being replaced by a new baby brother, Nina is fighting against herself. It is the darker, more volatile, and impulsive side that threatens to break free from the calculated, ambitious, perfectionist trapping her beneath. Sayers isn’t only the perfect dancer for leading a performance of Swan Lake—she is the Swan Queen incarnate.

I guess I never really knew the power of ballet before, and I don’t think I’m alone. Aronofsky and the screenwriters understand the general public’s reluctance to give an artform with such a distinct stigma of femininity a chance, so they ambush us at the start with the most graceful punch to the gut of the year, an extended dance sequence of Natalie Portman’s Nina being taken by the darkness of the Black Swan’s temptation and desire. Even she awakens in fervor, knowing the brilliance of what she experienced in dream and the fact her movements were unlike any she has ever used. It’s as though she was possessed with a force greater than her own, a hidden tumultuousness forever masked by the prim, proper, and prudish creature at the surface, imprisoned against its will and constantly clawing its way from subconscious to reality. The steps, like most of the film, are shot in extreme close-up so every en pointe is framed to see the bounce of toes on stage floor and her body flows forth with an aggressive beauty, contrasted white on the precisely lit blackness beyond. We see Nina’s potential before the world ever gets a hint of what’s within—it’s the performance she knows she is capable of and the seductive power her director (Vincent Cassel’s Thomas) prays can be released.

There are numerous comparisons to make to films from the past and, besides the previously mentioned few, I do think a big one is Suspiria. The filmmakers have cultivated the same off-putting tension of horror with the cattiness powderkeg of dancers all fighting for stage time and billing. Age, beauty, and sexuality begin to trump pure skill as Cassel isn’t looking to direct a stuffy ballet audiences have seen before; he wants to take them on a new singular journey. His White Swan can be no one but Sayers with her dedicated precision, but his Black Swan, (the two played by the same actress), needs a danger he’s never believed existed within her. She is a sexually immature woman, living at home with her craft—helped by a mother who gave up her own dreams to have an unplanned daughter, not wanting mistakes repeated—and away from temptation. Nina sees the exquisite Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) pushed aside by youth, feeling the sorrow of being the one who replaced her, but naïve to think it’s just business. Her child-like innocence begins to crack, however, and once the world’s evils come forth to destroy her newfound success and status, warranting immense jealousy by her peers, the inner-struggle starts to grow in strength.

And this is where I can see Black Swan polarizing audiences and causing ignorant reactions from people afraid to let such a challenging work wash over them. Uncomfortable laughter was rampant at my screening; an older gentleman couldn’t contain himself by audibly calling Portman’s Nina a baby once seeing her highly emotional mindset and collection of dolls. But this stuff isn’t humorous—it’s tragic. Sayers has led a life carefully managed by a mother forcing her onto a path towards greatness without allowing her to be a person before a dancer. Barbara Hershey is fantastic as Erica Sayers, exuding intense joy at Nina’s success, pity at her failures, and frighteningly forceful disappointment when straying off course. It is a psychologically messed up relationship based on fear, as these two troubled women are completely dependent on one another. Her smothering juxtaposes strongly with Cassel’s tough love and brazen coaching techniques that use sex as a tool to procure a real performance, as well as Mila Kunis’s Lily, a woman Nina sees as her inner-beast, a girl she starts to desire and wants to become. Just as Lily covets the Swan Queen role, Nina wants her body as a vessel to exist away from the crushing, manufactured innocence of a woman that has never truly lived.

Because of this, the film spirals into a surreal blackness of manifested transformation. Nina Sayers is literally changing into the Black Swan as her repressed persona rises, following her on the streets, looking through her with steely cold eyes from mirrors, and changing her very body into a feathery, winged creature of incalculable power through seamless, horrifying computer effect work. Reflections are rampant through the film and the close-up framing adds to the audience’s troublesome feeling as emotions run high, tears flow, and a newfound aggressive nature rears its head. Portman is a revelation, going through the evolution of character and letting her tenuous hold on reality show forth in her performance. Fantasy and reality blur to where you aren’t quite sure what is actually happening. Nina’s delusions become a part of her life and instead of seeing those around her worried and helpful, we only see her interpretations of jealousy and anger as the world attempts to destroy everything she’s worked for. It is a role that surely will land Portman a Best Actress nomination, and one worthy of a win. It may not seem so at first, the part oozing with an almost grating purity, but once her metamorphosis is complete, you will be blown away by the conversion.

Enjoy the film for it’s psychological terrors, for its stunning dance choreography, or it’s amazing performances—right down to Kunis showing a danger we’ve never seen from her before. Be captivated by Aronofsky’s skill and eye for the dramatic, crafting each scene more powerful than the last and visually representing a descent into insanity, enhanced by another hauntingly brilliant score from Clint Mansell and angled compositions and sharp cuts constantly keeping you on your mental toes. Black Swan is ultimately a look into the high-stress environment of ballet and the chaos it cultivates in stark contrast to the beauty on stage. A microcosm of egos, emotions, and profound insecurities, dancers will do whatever is necessary to stay ‘beautiful’ and ‘perfect’ without regard as to how their mental health slowly deteriorates into an uncontrollable state of combustible flux. It’s truly a wonder anyone makes it out alive or sane. To them, without performance—and existence itself is the most important act of all—life just isn’t worth a damn.

Black Swan 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

[1] L-R: Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in BLACK SWAN; Photo by Niko Tavernise
[2] Mila Kunis in BLACK SWAN. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise
[3] Natalie Portman stars as Nina and Winona Ryder stars as Beth MacIntyre in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Black Swan (2010)

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