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Black Swan

Natalie Portman descends into madness in Darren Aronofsky film

Dec. 14, 2010
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Black Swan hadn’t even opened in most cities, yet the nominations were already trickling in. The Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, one of the second-tier contests on the way to Oscar night, bestowed no less than 12 nominations on the film, starting with Best Picture and including Best Director for Darren Aronofsky and Best Actress for Black Swan’sstar, Natalie Portman. The nods are well deserved.

With her hair tied back in a severe yet sexy bun, Portman plays Nina, the girl who would be the Swan Queen. Aronofsky’s depiction of the ballerina’s life is closer to his essay on the masochism of competition, The Wrestler, than to Michael Powell’s beloved ballet classic, The Red Shoes. As early as his feature debut, Pi, Aronofsky had a penchant for madness—the acutely subjective perceptions of a mind disintegrating under pressure. The stress of dancing double roles as the white and black swan, the virgin and harlot of Swan Lake, grows overwhelming. For Nina, her dream has become a nightmare.

We first encounter her in dreamland—a nocturnal fantasy of whirling on slippered tiptoes around a darkened stage, her diaphanous gown catching the white glow of a single spotlight. Nina awakes in her princess bedroom, all pink and white and lined with stuffed animals. She’s 28, living with her mother (Barbara Hershey) and caged in a romantic, adolescent fantasy of sugar plum fairies and dying swans. Nina seems unaware that beneath the lovely surface of Tchaikovsky roiled passions seeking release, and that mom’s concern for her career is fueled by projection and laced with jealousy. Mother was once a dancer and is trying to achieve the success that eluded her through her daughter.

Nina’s dance company bristles with backbiting and gossip, starting with the declining fortunes and emotional tantrums of its aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder). While refraining from the cattiness, Nina slips into the fading star’s dressing room and swipes her lipstick, as if to steal her still-powerful allure. Like many of his contemporaries, the choreographer (Vincent Cassel) wants to revitalize a classic, trimming the lace from Swan Lake to reveal a visceral drama. In casting Nina in the lead roles, he’s also casting her for his bed—all, of course, in the name of tapping the dark impulses he feels are essential to art. And then there is a rival, Nina’s opposite number in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis). Obviously the bad girl, Lily smokes, drinks on rehearsal nights, dances with the imprecise passion the choreographer admires and walks around with an iPod probably set to Jay-Z, not Tchaikovsky. Is the outgoing Lily really trying to blacken Nina’s star and seize the Swan Queen’s throne for herself?

Black Swan
is a hallucinogenic hall of mirrors, an Expressionist journey into a fragmented consciousness where what is reflected could only be happening in the mind of the viewer. Strange stigmata-like marks and rashes appear on Nina’s alabaster body. Like classic 1940s Hollywood horror films, Black Swan warns of the monstrous forces sexuality can unleash. And like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, it also warns of the crazy danger of show-business illusion, the tipping point where fantasy eclipses reality. Surrounded on all sides by predators real and possible, and racked by contrary desires, Nina lurches between innocence and paranoia. Portman’s performance is difficult, occasionally excruciating, and as worthy as the film itself of all accolades. Black Swan sets the bar high for all contenders on Oscar night.


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